Challenges and Opportunities for Japan HR Leaders
An interview with MJ Li,
VP of HR at J&J Family of companies in Japan
When MJ Li arrived in Japan two years ago, she thought that since both China and Japan are Asian countries, it will be easier for her to understand Japanese culture. On the first day at work in Japan, one of her friends sent her an article titled “Why 99% of Foreign Leaders Failed in Japan”, and later she also realized that the reality turned out to be totally contrary to her original thought.
In June 2019, MJ Li successfully completed her 2 year assignment in Japan and move on to her new role in Beijing. We are very honored to have the opportunity to hear her story in Japan.
· What are the secrets that made MJ Li become the 1% expat leaders that succeed in Japan?
· What are the challenges and opportunities for Japan HR Leaders?
· How did she win the trust and be accepted by the employees in Japan?
· What are the lessons learnt from Japanese employees?
Here is a summary of our interview with MJ Li before she left Japan.
Challenges & Opportunities
1. Demography of Talent Pool
One of the biggest challenges for Japan is an aging population, and shortage of bilingual business leaders. At Johnson & Johnson, the average age of Japanese employees is 8-10 years elder than that of China. Although Japan is Johnson & Johnson's second largest market in the world, the size of its talent pool in Japan is not proportional to its business scale. In general, compared to many other Asian markets, the talent pool in Japan is very thin, especially those who have global mindset and capability in leading and managing changes. As a result, there are very few Japanese business leaders who are in critical AP or Global positions.
In order to promote more career development opportunities, I have set up a goal of achieving 25% internal rotation for her team in the first year, so that team members can learn continuously through the new and different assignment and understand the roles and responsivities of others. One good example is that I appointed one of the team members to a short-term assignment in China. He was selected because he took the initiate and wanted to challenge himself by signing up for a new assignment. In the end, he set up a good example for others by stretching himself in a different environment and created mutual learning and best practice sharing between China and Japan team.
2. Unique Style of communication
Historically, Japan has always been homogeneous society. You are not easily to be accepted if you are different from others. So, the general expectation is that the foreigners shall be integrated into the Japanese customs and ways of doing things.
For example, Japanese usually refrain from expressing their thoughts and views openly in meetings, and they do not recognize those who speak up and speak out their opinions in the meetings.
One thing I did was to create a culture of open communication and encourage my team to speak out proactively. One of the reasons that people are afraid of speaking up and speaking out is that they are afraid of being judged by others or making mistakes. I told them no matter what you say, as long as you express your opinion. you make contribution to the discussion. At the same time, I asked them to explore different ideas and new opportunities with curiosity rather than judging people.
I am very proud to see that at the end of my assignment, people started to challenge me and openly expressed different opinions.
3. Resistant to Changes & Uncertainty
In Japan, changes are usually taken negatively. Resistant to changes is usually a natural reaction from people. In China, people are relatively open to changes as every change may represent a new opportunity.
When I first came to Japan, Johnson & Johnson global was implementing a global HR transformation project to move some of the HR services to Manila. At the beginning, everyone was skeptical about this project and has little confidence about it. In order to address everyone’s concern, we decided to recruit local Japanese-speaking employees to work at the Manila call center. I was able to convince the global HQ to allow the Japan project manager to be involved in the recruitment process, and secured budget for her to fly to Manila for interviews and training orientations. As a result, the project has been launched successfully and the service level has been improved continuously.
This case has let everyone realize that change is not that scary, and once they change the mindset, all the rest will follow in a positive way.
At the end of 2017, I gave everyone in my HR team a book called Growth Mindset, telling the team every new challenge and change can be turned out to be a great opportunity. Failure is not a test of their capability, but an opportunity to learn and grow.
Key to the Success
Of course, MJ Li’s success as an Expat Leader didn’t come as a gift, one of the keys to her success was that she truly respects the cultural difference and was able to establish trust with Japanese employees from the very beginning.
· Be on time: Japanese employees have a very strong sense of punctuality and are very compliant with the rules and commitments. Once I was 7 minute late to my HR team meeting. Although the delay was caused by the delay from the prior meeting, I felt really sorry when I entered the conference room seeing everybody was very upset with my delay. This was the first lesson I learned after I came to Japan. After this incident, I asked my assistant to change all my one hour meeting into 45 minutes, so that I had time to move between meetings and never be late again.
· Open space & communication: when I first came to Japan, I was assigned to a big independent office room, while all my HR team sat outside in the open area. I decided to move myself outside to be together with my team and change my office into a meeting room so that everyone can use it. I felt that this move has had a great impact on the team at the time and has brought us closer.
In order to encourage more 1-1 communication, I set one noon time every week to have lunch with HR team member, but they must take the initiative to send me an invitation. In return, I pay for the meal.
Things learned from Japan
MJ Li really enjoyed her stay in Japan, and she loved the unique business culture of Japan. There are many great things that she has learnt from her HR team in Japan. Here are a few examples:
· Craftsmanship and Commitment: Japanese employees are hard-working and dedicate to their job.
· Self-motivation： Japanese employees are self-driven. Their sense of accomplishment doesn’t come from compensation or promotions. They are motivated by a small recognition like a simply “thank you” message.
· Self-disciplined: Every time they finish a meeting in Japan, the employees will take the initiative to put the tables and chairs back to original positions, and clean up the room, I was told that they learned to do this since there were at primary schools. These are great behaviors we can learn from Japan team in China.