Foreign and over the hill – Part Two

Foreign and over the hill – Part Two

Getting fired is always a traumatic experience. But for foreign senior executives, the experience is particularly humiliating. Tokyo is a small town, and people quickly notice a high-flyer getting shot down. Also, corporate politics is unpredictable, especially if you're the only foreigner in a Japanese managed company – even a foreign company – in Japan. I find that foreign firms often go through swings of wanting to be foreign run or Japanese run. It's a rare company that can tread a stable middle path. And thus, senior executives tend to be particularly vulnerable to being the wrong nationality at a given point in time.

I've known a number of foreign executives on the receiving end of such political firings. Often these guys have been brought in to the country as part of a global strategy in order to fix a business. Despite possibly being successful in achieving this, if the winds of change blow the wrong way and the foreign executive, for no fault of their own isn't a fluent Japanese speaker (or if a Japanese executive can't communicate in English), then they are expected to pack their bags and head back home, or in many cases, just leave the company. Once out of sight and sound of headquarters, you become more expendable.

So, you're a foreign executive jobless in Tokyo, you've been here 3 years, you're not fluent in the language yet, but you have a burgeoning business network and want to continue a career in Japan. What do you do? Stay or leave?

I guess it depends on your financial needs and pride factor. It is quite hard for most executives to accept that they have to lower their expectations. Many use their severance package to take some time off and recover from the experience. This actually isn't such a bad idea, but of course means that you have a long unexplained gap in your resume and thus will hinder your job search once you start working again. Pretty much you'll be restricted to speculative and risky companies. If you don't mind taking a step into the great unknown, such firms can actually be a great solution. Your wife may not think so, however.

If you want to stay in the hallways of power in a major corporation, the key is a job search using your personal network, and without appearing desperate. Not always an easy thing to do when the international school your two children are attending has just sent you the bill for next term! Some executives are lucky enough to come from an up-and-coming industry and thus despite lack of language skills, they are able to use the executive search recruiting companies to help them find a new position. We've seen this in the telecommunications and IT industries recently.

Probably you should focus on firms with a strong US or overseas network – because that way, the chances are that your next hire will be decided overseas, where they don't view language skills as being a critical factor. Better still, you may wind up with an Asia-Paific role which allows you to be based in Tokyo. If you start interviewing for jobs locally, your language ability will almost always come up as an excuse as to why you're getting passed over in job applications.

As I've said in the past, recruiters are only as good as the job specs of their clients. So local recruiters absolutely want candidates to have sufficient language skills and demonstrated achievements in Japan in the appropriate sector.

But possibly the best resource is your own network developed over the years you've been doing business in Japan. Both your Japanese and foreign colleagues hear about jobs all the time, if only because the executive search companies are calling them, and thus you should be able to track down some opportunities this way. Yes, the foreign community is small, and yes, you will have to swallow your pride to talk to your friends about a new job. But, especially if you are still employed while you start the process, then at least you can position yourself as being under pressure and wanting to move out of your own accord.

Remember the old saw, the most desirable candidate is one who is already taken. Make sure that you appear to still be employed!