In September ChapmanCG held a series of HR Leaders meetings in Tokyo focussing on the talent life-cycle in Japan. It was fascinating to hear about the often surprising progressions that organisations are experiencing as they strive to acquire and develop the best talent in the market. This article provides an overview of the meeting for Japan HR Leaders hosted by Coca-Cola, the one for Japan Talent Management Leaders hosted by Merck Group, and lastly the gathering for Japan Talent Acquisition Leaders hosted by CBRE.

The groups were each attended by around 25 senior leaders in their fields, including participation from American Express, Aon, Bausch & Lomb, Bayer, Beckman Coulter, BlackRock, British American Tobacco, BT, Cisco, Criteo, Danaher, Dell, Edgewell, EY, FedEx, Fonterra, GlaxoSmithKline, Goldman Sachs, Havi Logistics, Hilton, Huawei, JP Morgan, Linklaters, L’Oreal, McCann, McDonald’s, Mondelez International, Nikko Asset Management, Oracle, PerkinElmer, Philips, Rakuten, Salesforce.com, Sanofi, Standard Chartered Bank, SunGard, Symantec, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Twitter and UCB.

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Finding the ‘X Factor’ in Japan Leadership Talent: Personal Aspiration

At Coca-Cola the HR Leaders meeting primarily focused on the challenge of building truly global Japanese leadership talent. In one key case study, the group heard from a company that has defined certain roles within the organisation as critical to achieving a competitive advantage. Once these key roles were identified for the business in Japan, the HR group then needed to ensure that only high potential talent were in these positions. These high potentials were defined as those who were able to demonstrate sustained performance, coupled with the necessary ‘raw materials’ for success in that role, finished off with the personal aspiration to achieve.

The group agreed that in the Japan context, personal aspiration is sometimes the most difficult quality to find in high performers. One reason is that even talented leaders in Japan still tend to feel embarrassed when it comes to promoting their achievements to seniors and peers. But even more problematic is the continued expectation in the Japanese workplace that senior management will ‘look after employees’ from up on high, and pluck those who are deserving from their current positions, placing them in a ‘better’ role. It is clear that there still needs to be continued education around the fact that employees themselves need to own their careers, and can’t expect others to own it for them.

One Japan HR Leader shared with the group how his/her company is now requiring employees to declare a desired ‘destination role’ into which they want to progress. The objective of this declaration is not only to engender a culture of personal goal-setting, but also to avoid the costly mistakes of the past where a talented individual may have been developed in a certain direction, while they themselves had a completely different preferred career path. In the words of that HR Leader, the process was ‘not pretty’, since many talented employees had great difficulty in setting these goals. But with buy-in that this needed to be done from the very top, the team was able to push the initiative through.

It Ain’t What You Say, It’s the Way that You Say It

When it comes to ensuring that top talent is not only relevant in the Japan context, but also in the wider global community of leaders, the challenges increase further, often due to the lack of English language ability. However, the group discussed that the issue is not only about language ability; it is more often the way in which language needs to be used. This could include the ability to make a convincing presentation, or to put forward a dissenting view, or even the capacity to take feedback, to name just three examples. This kind of advanced language dexterity is such an important factor in building that quality of ‘global executive presence’, and the capability (coupled with the desire) to leverage relationships across global networks is also key. Extensive global awareness training is critical, rather than simply relying on what may be someone’s nominal command of the English language.

This kind of training can take many forms, but in one example that was shared, it was a case of forcing executives to break some Japanese social norms. In that company, the international organisation charts were open for everyone to see, and it was common practice for senior executives to simply pick up the phone and call people in similar positions overseas to share experiences about what should and could be done in a variety of situations. Senior executives in Japan would ordinarily have a problem with this, due to their natural cultural reticence in calling people without an official introduction through a third party. It was an interesting case study illustrating how a little effort in tweaking the ways people communicate can have disproportionately positive results.

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Successful Talent Management Requires Commitment from the Top - and the Bottom

In the meeting for HR and Talent Management leaders at Merck Group, the discussion focused on how companies were helping to embed a philosophy of talent and development more deeply into the leadership culture in Japan. In a series of case studies, the one common theme was that the organisational leadership must care about talent, and without this there is very little that even the best Talent Management expert can achieve. The best examples of talent and development having an impact are those where there is true commitment to driving things forward in a way (and at a pace) that ensures success. In one example, a CEO in Japan found an extremely talented potential employee who would truly benefit the business. That CEO was so passionate about this person’s potential impact on the organisation that the company chose to bring the individual in as the new CEO. The existing CEO changed career plan and arranged a move into another geography, thus sending a message to everyone in the company that management is ‘not just all talk’ about talent and succession planning in their organisation.

In another example, a retail company had managed to embed a very strong learning culture across all shop floors. This had taken many years of nurturing, through a series of mentoring programmes and a system of ambassadors at all levels, who took pride in maintaining high standards and sharing frequent feedback with other staff members at all times. This case study demonstrated that great examples can be set from the top of an organisation down through its tiers of management, but the culture of learning can be even stronger when this is paired with a ‘bottom up’ approach.

Recruit Future Leaders in Japan, Rather than ‘Seat Fillers’

In keeping with the overall theme of Talent Management, the meeting for Japan Talent Acquisition Leaders at CBRE focused on how the recruitment function can also play a joined-up part in a company’s overall talent and retention ecosystem. By focusing on a philosophy of ‘recruiting to build’ rather than ‘recruiting to replace’, the TA function can ensure that the company is being populated by future leaders, rather than simply people who can fulfil the obligations of their existing job descriptions at the time.

This philosophy can even be applied at all levels of recruitment, including starting from the very bottom. In one case study, a company had an excellent programme for graduate recruitment, and they were able to attract many aspiring employees from some of the best universities and schools in Japan. However, the programme was not personalised enough, making it difficult to manage these people’s careers properly once they had joined. Many over-qualified graduates were doing relatively menial work for extended periods of time, resulting in high attrition, low engagement and a bad return on investment in the graduate recruitment process. By linking this recruitment more closely with the talent development process, these problems have largely been rectified, although the Talent Acquisition leader in question did admit that they did still have many Waseda graduates selling electronic goods on shop floors even three years after they started.

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Speed of Recruitment Might be Leading to Faster Exits…

The meeting concluded with some ‘breaking news’ from a Japan Talent Acquisition Leader in the technology sector, who mentioned that the company had just made a surprising discovery. Through statistical analysis, this organisation had noticed an inverse correlation between the time to fill an assignment, and subsequent attrition rates of the people hired. The faster the company was able to hire someone, the more likely it was that the employee in question would leave sooner. This has caused a period of significant internal reflection, because the company’s global Talent Acquisition function has hitherto been measured on efficiencies and speed to fill assignments. However, it appears to be this very speed that is somehow causing problems later down the track in the talent life-cycle.

The company has now launched a deeper investigation into this inverse correlation, since at the moment they are only able to speculate on the causes. Is this happening because recruiters are focusing on pushing both sides to come to a decision, and thus aren’t paying enough attention to ‘reading the signs’ about a potentially bad hire? Is it because in processes that are slower, all parties involved the decision-making can properly understand the market and make a more accurate decision? Or is it because people that are interviewed early on and with most speed tend to be the ‘low-hanging fruit’, and are more likely to be job-hoppers rather than longer-term successful hires? At the moment we don’t know, but we will continue to track this story as it develops.

Many thanks go to our hosts in Japan, as well as to the participants, for these thought-provoking meetings, and we look forward to calling these groups together again in early 2016. Watch out for another article, which will be online soon, detailing the discussions in our additional September meetings for Japan C&B Leaders and HR Business Partners.

Here's What People are Saying:

"It was an eye-opener as a new entrant HRD into this complex market - and a great way to prep for some of the challenges that are likely to come up." - Anita Venugopal, British American Tobacco

"I leave these HR roundtable discussions always energized and enriched with something new to try. I am also humbled to know that my challenges on readying the next generation of Japanese leaders are similarly shared with other great companies, which encourages me to believe that collectively there are solutions, as there are many HR leaders working towards a common ground. Finally, ChapmanCG's take on trends and disruptive innovations in HR are spot-on. Their input helps us to advance our profession, and should stimulate us all to act now!" - Lydia Dorman, Coca-Cola

"It was a great meeting to learn what is happening in the HR world in Japan. Also I was very impressed by the ChapmanCG presentation on the most updated HR information." - Shuji Aso, Hilton

"This was the second roundtable I joined, and I was privileged to know HR professionals from different industries who share the same passion and similar agendas." - Kazuhisa Ito, Standard Chartered Bank

"Another great session. Interesting that a group of TA & HR Leaders from such a diverse cross-section of companies and industries are experiencing the very same set of challenges here in Japan." - Tom Browne, Cisco

"These meetings are always a great time to calibrate your thinking, and riff off of the ideas of the other great recruiting and HR leaders in the room. There is always more to learn!" - Michael J. Case, Salesforce.com

"The meeting was far from a mere 'get-to-know-you' event. I enjoyed the in-depth discussion on talent and learned a lot. I look forward to the next one." - Ted Hossho, Sanofi

"I enjoyed the discussion about leadership and talent management, and was very impressed from the stories and initiatives from other industries. - Yoshiko Nakazawa, GlaxoSmithKline

"It is great to share the approaches that different companies are taking in developing Japanese talent in an international environment." - Julia Gao, L'Oreal

"It was encouraging and inspiring to talk with HR professionals who tackle similar challenges! Exchanging with HR professionals from various business fields, as well as the excellent platform to openly share best practices, gave me a lot of new food for thought." - Satoko Murakami, Merck Group