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Leadership Development and Direct Recruitment in Japan: Two Key Topics Discussed in Tokyo

The November 2012 Japan HR Leaders Series of meetings consisted of five separate get-togethers. Two separate groups of Japan Human Resources Heads met at the offices of Cargill and Alcatel-­Lucent to discuss current talent trends; Japan HR and Staffing Leaders met at PAREXEL to discuss direct sourcing strategies; Japan HR and Talent Leaders met at Bloomberg to discuss leadership in Japan; and Japan HR and C&B Heads met at Microsoft to discuss how to maximise employees’ potential in Japan. Altogether approximately 100 Human Resources leaders participated in the week’s gatherings, and the content included case studies from representatives of companies such Unilever, Nike, Coca-Cola, Baxter, Goldman Sachs, Maersk and Hewlett­ Packard, as well as a tour of the award-­winning Tokyo headquarters of Microsoft.

1) Trends in Talent Acquisition

  • Perhaps the hottest topic of all was in the area of Talent Acquisition. Most multinationals still rank Japan as one of the world’s most expensive markets in which to hire external talent. Most companies are struggling to eliminate agency usage, despite being aware of online recruitment tools such as LinkedIn. Even the most advanced companies are still using agencies for over 50% of their open roles, and are only using direct sourcing methods when they have 5-10 headcounts in the same field to hire.
  • The use of employee referrals was also not huge compared to other markets, and the consensus for the key reason behind this is the fear of referrals being rejected, and the awkwardness that this could cause the original referrer. So it was deemed important for companies to devise specific ways to alleviate this in Japan.
  • In one example, the company implemented a system of casual meetings, whereby all referrals are granted a casual meeting of lunch or dinner with the hiring manager, in order to have a pre-­interview process where both sides can go over the role and expectations. Only if both parties are interested following
    in case of any early rejection.
  • In another example, the company noticed that the longer an employee stays with the company in Japan, the further they tend to get separated from their previous community. So they saw the need to instigate an early friend referral programme timed as part of a new employee’s 90 day review process. This has shown a much more successful conversion rate than previous attempts to instigate more general referral programmes.
  • And in another example, the company found success by simply dishing out larger or more desirable referral incentives that would help outweigh the potential fear of giving referrals who later fail their interview. So a system of giving out smartphones, iPads, TVs and vacations was devised, tiered depending on the number of successful referrals given in one year.
  • One company held a ‘Bring a Professional to Work Day’, modelled along similar lines to similar schemes for bringing in family members.
  • And finally, one company decided not to reward employees for successful placements of referrals, but simply to reward for sharing details such as names and contact details.
  • In all cases, companies needed to be careful to strictly adhere to Japan’s labour and privacy laws. It took some companies many months to find ways to account for these regulatory barriers, and some companies represented were surprised to hear about how advanced others have been.

2) Trends in Talent and Leadership

Other than Talent Acquisition, the other key trend in Japan HR continues to be in up-skilling existing local talent. The topic covered a number of key factors, but here are the principal take-home details from the conversations:

  • Skills and competencies still remain difficult to find in Japan, especially when coupled with English Language requirements. But above this, it’s culture fit that remains the most prized factor. Only companies with very strong employee brands can hope to find potential employees with both the competencies and culture that they want—everyone else sadly needs to be comfortable in reaching compromises.
  • One interesting skill that appears to be lacking in many Japanese employees is the somewhat obscure skill of story telling. When an overseas manager asks a Japanese leader a question, he can expect a very precise and descriptive answer. But not always an engaging or compelling one that paints a picture of this person’s involvement in coming to a conclusion or achieving a particular success. So when someone is dealing with senior international stakeholders, it may be worth paying particular emphasis on this training need.
  • Some companies are finally finding some success in teleworking in Japan. The experience from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami have indeed left an indelible mark on some managers who had previously been against remote team management. And the experience working from home in Japan has also helped some employees in working better with remote managers based overseas. In all cases mentioned, productivity has increased in direct proportion to the rise in work flexibility. And once again, Japan labour regulations on overtime pay (as well as extra pay when working beyond 10pm) do not make this easy, and companies need to take care to be compliant with strict record taking.
  • Every company is still in the process of further educating the employee to take ownership of their own career paths rather than rely on their line manager to tell them about what their next role will be. The employee’s own responsibility needs to be taken alongside the responsibility of their manager to coach them, as well as the responsibility of the company to have enough interesting career paths available within the organisation. Only if all three cogs are in place will the talent ‘machine’ run well.
  • International mobility is still a key factor in getting managers ready for future leadership positions. Where this is not always possible, some companies have devised systems of regional mentoring, where an employee in Japan can at least have a mentor sitting in another office overseas. Both methods can have successful results in terms of bringing Japanese top talent more in line with what is viewed as top talent in other markets.
  • Where a Japanese employee has done well in Japan, they often need a hand to properly encourage them to share their successes with employees in other overseas offices. This is because this kind of ‘bragging’ has traditionally been frowned upon in Japan, where modesty is highly regarded. So one company has successfully exported Japanese employees as ‘Advocators’ to share stories of success across the region and even into global headquarters. This system has engendered a better culture of information sharing in Japan, and has also allowed Japanese employees to go overseas with some in-built credibility rather than in a more junior standing.
  • One company shared a success story in creating cross-­function peer consulting groups, which allow leaders to discuss management and communication challenges between each other (the Bombardier approach). This allows a leader to discuss an issue, explain what they tried to do about it, and ask the group what kind of consulting or advice they want from them. These sessions have been particularly successful in Japan, where department heads can tend to naturally avoid informal communication with each other. All five groups were highly interactive and enjoyable, with a broad mix of viewed shared. As with all of these meetings, the relationships that get formed within these casual intimate sessions last long aft
    er the end of the meeting, so it’s great to have seen so many Japan HR Leaders continue to enjoy their participation.

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