In the last week of February 2015, ChapmanCG held two HR Networking meetings in Tokyo where a mix of Japan HR Leaders and Japan HR Business Partners from an array of industries gathered to discuss the secrets behind what makes a great Future HR Leader in Japan. The meetings were hosted by Coach and Merck (MSD) at their Japan Headquarters based in Roppongi and Kudanshita, respectively. A very diverse group of HR practitioners was in attendance from companies such as AIG, Apple, Coca-Cola, Dell, Gap, Google, Gucci, IBM, InterContinental Hotels Group, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Mitsui, Morgan Stanley, Nomura, Novartis, Philip Morris, SAP, Sony, Takeda Pharmaceuticals and Thomson Reuters. We explored a number of salient HR issues in both meetings, and following is an overview of the significant topics covered.

Diversity of Experience

One of the key points for discussion in both meetings was the importance of gaining experience from diverse settings, since this helps an HR Business Partner to understand issues from a number of perspectives. This doesn’t just mean gaining exposure to different HR disciplines, but also ensuring that you have experience in a variety of different industries, cultures, and ideally geographical markets.

In some ways, Japanese companies have traditionally been very good at this aspect of career development, since they routinely rotate people from the business into HR departments. Participants did acknowledge, that this ‘Japanese way’ might not be perfect, because it can result in a lack of true depth in HR knowledge across the company. However, Western multinationals should at least take some inspiration from these practices by trying to introduce more business people into HR teams, in order to ‘cross-fertilise’ knowledge of the business with the rest of the HR team. Even if these short-term assignments from business into HR don’t happen easily, companies can still make efforts to get business leaders from a variety of disciplines to give talks and presentations to HR teams, in order for them to ‘get closer’ to the frontline management of the company. Every little helps in getting HR practitioners to think outside of the parameters of HR operations, and into the minds of their business clients.

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Establishing Your Personal Brand

Another theme that came up in both meetings was the importance of developing a personal ‘brand’ as an HR practitioner, since this helps to build trust and character. In one group, the participants debated the extent to which an HR Business Partner needs to be seen as a neutral arbiter when managing conflict, or whether an HR practitioner should be comfortable in bringing their own personal opinions (or even emotions) in order to come to a resolution. In the other group, this theme was tackled from the angle of ‘using what’s unique to you’ when making your voice heard, whether this is something that comes from your personality, your nationality, or even your hobbies and interests. Building your brand as an HR practitioner allows you to build stories and narratives that can help to convince business colleagues to perform in ways that they may not have done in isolation.

Part of this process is working out what it means in your organisation to build credibility, as only after establishing this foundation of credibility will you be able to make headway. In one example, credibility was built by sharing best practice amongst ‘siloed’ business units. In another example, an HR Business Partner built credibility by showing that she could work at lightning speed. Work out (Or even better, ask!) what it is that will give you the ‘quick win’ with any decision-maker, and then build your credibility and your brand up from there.

Be a Role Model and Take Responsibility for Your Own Career

In the Japan context, a true HR Leader needs to be a role model in terms of mapping out his or her own career path. It is still very common in Japan for employees (HR or otherwise) to feel that it is up to the company to move and promote them. In fact, the idea of taking responsibility for one’s own career can cause people anxiety, rather than the sense of freedom it may bring in other countries. This is part of the reason that Japanese talent is under-represented in international roles (both in Japan and overseas), because people from other cultures put their hands up for a promotion when they are 50% ready for the role, while a Japanese employee is more likely to wait until he or she is 99% ready! Japanese talent can therefore feel ‘overlooked’ for these roles, when in fact the onus should be on the HR Leader to make sure that they know the rules of the game.

Find a Mentor

One HR Business Partner made a great point about finding a business and/or HR mentor, and staying connected to that person throughout your career. This allows HR Business Partners to always have a ‘sounding board’ for decisions. Because HR Leaders are trusted with some of the most sensitive and personal company information, it can be very lonely at the top of the HR tree, so this is especially important. Matthew Chapman, CEO of The Chapman Consulting Group, adds: “And better yet, it’s useful to have multiple mentors, since it can be dangerous to put just one mentor ‘on a pedestal,’ as you don’t have a 360 degree view about what that individual’s own shortcomings might be.”

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Conflict Resolution: Focus on Shared Goals

There will always be a certain amount of conflict resolution in any HR department, and HR Leaders should be prepared for this. It was agreed that when it comes to handling conflict, it always pays to focus on what both sides are trying to achieve. Often employees on both sides of a disagreement are trying to reach the same outcome, but they are coming up with different ideas about the process to get there. By focusing on the common ground, you can help the actual process become less significant to both sides. This can also help the HR Leader from becoming ‘stuck in the middle’ of both sides of an argument.

Anticipate the True Needs of Your Business

The ‘nirvana’ to partnering with the business is when an HR Leader can be ‘three steps ahead.’ A true HR Leader needs to bring up ideas that the business isn’t already thinking about, and be prepared for the potential knee-jerk objections to these ideas. In order to achieve this ideal state, it is also important that an HR Leader has the ability to pass on a feeling of passion about the company and about its global vision. This becomes even more important in situations where there may be perceived tensions between country and HQ, as it helps employees overlook these to focus on shared goals. This ideally should be an emotional connection, because it’s only when someone truly feels something, that his or her behaviour naturally follows the same path.

In Conclusion – Invest in Yourself

To sum up, another key point raised was that HR Leaders themselves must continue to address and challenge their own biases, keeping an open mind to fresh perspectives. This can be achieved by being patient, being persistent, and ‘going deep’ into the opinions of those around you. And most importantly, HR Leaders need to remember to invest in themselves, ensuring that they don’t feel that they must only be at the service of others. Only by sticking to this path of continual improvement will a future HR Leader truly reach their full potential, in Japan or anywhere else.

Here's what people are saying...

"Great networking, interesting discussion and valuable takeaways! It's a great attempt to bring together like-minded English-speaking HR professionals to discuss topics of common interest." - Ranjith Das, Dell

"Quality participants made a significant difference to the value of discussions about being greater global HR Leaders and HRBP's." - Masayoshi Hashimoto, Sony Mobile

"It was good to experience how telling a story is one of the secrets of being a good HR Business Partner. It links directly to your personal magnetism, your 'brand.' That's how people remember you and decide whether or not to trust you. Only once the trust has been built can you build credibility amongst business leaders." - Reiko Teshiba, L'Oreal