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Are Current and Future Japan HR Talent Prepared for International HR Leadership?

The Chapman Consulting Group co-hosted another series of HR roundtable discussions for select HR Heads over the last week. Japan HR leaders from high-profile multinationals in the Financial Services, Consumer Goods, Hospitality, Retail, Industrial, Technology, Media, and Life Sciences sectors met over lunch at the Japan headquarters of Syngenta, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Nikko Asset Management and Hilton Worldwide to discuss HR leadership strategies.

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The discussions centred around the HR Director’s responsibility in building the credibility of the HR function in Japan. This credibility can only be achieved if the HR leader has the trust of three important stakeholder groups: 1) the Japan business leadership, 2) the Japan HR team, and 3) the regional/global HR management.

1) Gaining Credibility with the Business

In discussing how to earn the credibility with the business, the HR groups agreed that this has to start ‘from the top’ with the Japan President of the organisation. In some examples, the HR leader was able to gain the trust of the business when they showed their ability to handle a crisis. In this respect, the recent global economic downturn has, in some ways, been good news for some HR leaders, as they have been able to use this chance to offer indispensible advice on how to restructure or downsize operations in a humane way while also mitigating the risks of legal action from employee groups.

With this successfully ‘under their belt’, the HR leader now has grounding by which to assert themselves more in the future, especially for more proactive rather than simply reactive initiatives. In cases where there hasn’t been an emergency from which the HR leader can ‘rescue’ the business, it can often be more difficult to earn the respect of the business leadership team in one decisive manner. Instead, it becomes very much a personalised approach to each individual leader, and it can be hard to predict which one action will suddenly strike a resonance with an individual business executive that might help them change from a potential sceptic into a potential HR ally. HR leaders agreed that the key in this situation was to focus on consistency of HR service delivery, so that at least the hygiene factor of quality HR responsiveness can be maintained until this ‘X Factor’ can be uncovered through repeated interactions with each business leader.

A constant theme throughout the series of HR leadership meetings was that, in managing these day-to-day relationships with the business, the key to gaining credibility is to simply speak the language of business. It’s no longer acceptable to just present yourself as an HR subject matter expert, in fact the more HR jargon you use, and the more focus that is put on the process-oriented facets of HR, the less impact it has with other business executives. One HR leader compared his interactions with the business to a haiku, where the essence of a subject can be distilled into a simple and memorable format. This demystification of HR is perhaps the best way to bring in the business into what HR can really do for them, especially if it can be expressed using numbers or metrics.

And finally, the key to gaining credibility with the business is to no lose it once you’ve earned it! One HR leader made the simple point that it’s great to be invited into business meetings, but if you’re just being a passive audience member rather than somehow contributing to the meeting, then by the third time there’s a high chance that you won’t be re-invited. Getting to the table is one skill, but knowing what to say, what to ask, and how to handle the politics once a meeting starts is a skill that needs to be picked up through experience.

2) Gaining Credibility with Your Own HR Team

The danger of being too responsive to the business is in the inability to say no to their requests. In larger organisations in Japan, this can push too much work onto your HR team and thus alienate yourself from your HR staff. So the ability to correctly handle the business can often have a direct impact on how to correctly gain the trust and credibility of the Japan HR team. Most importantly is to be a true role model to your HR staff. There are always time constraints as to how much time you can give to your team, but the importance of doing this must not be overlooked. While gaining credibility with the business starts at the top level with the HR leader and the business President, this has no meaning if it’s not being replicated between your HR business partners and their business clients. So the success of the HR leader is not just about his or her own personal relationship with the business, it’s about how they can replicate this over the scale of the Japan operations.

Overall, the best way to gain the credibility of your HR team is to share your skills and your experience with them. Yes, there are always professional firewalls that must not be crossed, but wherever possible you should be transparent with what you’re doing, and be generous with sharing the skills and tactics that you are deploying in any particular situation. Each individual HR leader had their own way of delivering against this. For some, the best answer was to organise a kind of HR business partner ‘boot camp’, where the team gets together to share experiences from one another. For others, they preferred to throw HR business partners ‘in the deep end’, and have them learn about how to improve their business partnering abilities by taking their own risks and making their own mistakes. And in other examples, the HR leader accompanies HR business partners to their meetings, and gives one-on-one advice on how to handle each specific meeting and even each specific personality around the table.

Whichever way suits your own personal style, the more you can give your HR team, the more that they can continue to be encouraged, engaged, and performing well. And the better they perform, the better you personally look in front of the business. So in this sense, HR leaders must not ignore one group of people because they’re too busy with another, because your credibility with one group can feed into your credibility with another. So share information with your HR team, give them a sense of pride, and make sure they feel and understand the tangible impact of the work that they’re doing.

3) Gaining Credibility with Your Regional and Global HR Management

As we have discussed in previous HR networking sessions, the third group that needs the attention of the Japan HR leader is the regional and global HR management team overseas. And once again, the HR leader’s personal credibility with the other two groups in Japan (namely the business and the HR team) can be directly affected by their credibility at the regional and global level. Gaining the trust and respect of your HR peers and superiors overseas will help you to consult to them in those circumstances where your Japan business perhaps feels that the business conditions in Japan call for a different business or HR strategy than is being deployed in other locations. If you’re not able to co
rrectly manage the expectations of all three stakeholder groups in these situations, then this can start to erode the trust that you’ve built. This is the skill-set that is perhaps to hardest to learn, as it is one of those skills that needs to be learnt through experience. And this is why junior Japanese HR professionals have a disadvantage to HR team members in other countries across the region, as they often have comparatively little contact with the world outside of Japan until they reach an HR leadership position. Knowing how to manage these complicated stakeholders is something that should be taught as early as possible, so the more exposure to international HR decision-making that the HR Director can give to their team members, the better they will be able to make the transition into an HR leadership position in the future. As one HR leader said, managing international HR stakeholders is a game, and Japan HR often doesn’t know the rules. So long as the HR leader can impart these rules to the next generation of HR talent in Japan, the country the best chance of having their voices heard in the global context.


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