The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

HR | COMMUNICATION

May 2014
New Beginnings
We can influence our starts every morning, in meetings, and at work
By Andrew Silberman

In Japan, April marks the start of the new school year, and for most companies it’s also the start of the fiscal year. New recruits (shinyushain) often spend the next three months in training, acclimating to their firms.

After four years in university, and perhaps two or three more in graduate school, this truly marks a new beginning. For most of these twenty-somethings, it’s their first taste of full-time, career-oriented employment.

The ACCJ is advocating a more flexible hiring standard and, at some point, Japanese firms may follow suit as they begin to place a higher value on overseas education and other less-conventional paths toward career entry. But for as long as I’ve been in Japan (about 24 years), this has been Japan Inc.’s way.

Shiny new shinyushain
The companies may be following the same pattern, but a sea change has occurred over the past few years, and this year’s shinyushain seem a breed apart: they’re more active, energetic, and, having never experienced the bubble economy, possess a combination of realistic expectations and a desire to create something new.

For example, 20 years ago I was training a group of shinyushain from a traditional Japanese bank. Out of several groups of 10 participants, one member stands out in my mind. He’d read Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence by Jim Loehr before I did! The others fit the stereotypical image of a salaryman (pose a question, receive empty stares with uncomfortable glances around the room. Ask for an opinion, hear Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence). This carried on as those newcomers became the veterans.

When we re-started our Global Readiness® Program several years ago and asked basic questions about work–life balance at another traditional firm, one potential manager, who would have been a freshman at the same time as the bankers, responded with a question of his own: “Work life Alex?” Work–life balance was that foreign to him.

Contrast these characters with this year’s group of shinyushain from Nippeco Ltd., a traditional Japanese firm that’s undergoing a real transformation. Nippeco is the world’s leading manufacturer of ultra high-quality grease, used in everything from automobiles to watches—virtually any high-end product with movable parts.

Their HR director, Hiroshi Takeda, was hired specifically to help prepare the company for the challenges of an increasingly competitive global market. As recently as two years ago, their freshmen recruits were hardly distinguishable from the bankers and glassmakers previously described. And yet, with this class under Takeda-san, a full day’s training (in both Japanese and English) felt like a summer fireworks party.

From the opening moments, even including a couple of gaffes (one of their presenters began with, “Hello, everyone!” and an audience member enthusiastically replied, “Hello, everyone!”), I have never seen a more engaged group of participants.

The attendees asked good questions of everyone, including the facilitators, each other, and even to their head of HR, Takeda-san. They all expressed genuine appreciation at the end of the day, and not just with words, but with hugs. Hugs, from Japanese engineers? Maybe Teri Morrison’s cross-cultural book Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More than 60 Countries will soon need a revision. As, I hope, do the predictions of Japan’s inevitable, “irreversible” decline.

How about your beginnings?

It wasn’t just the new shinyushain who have changed. Having survived the storms of 9/11, SARS, the Lehman Shock, 3/11, and the rise and fall of Britney Spears, it’s finally dawned on me that while “All’s well that ends well” may (or may not) be true, we don’t know and may never see the end. And yet we can influence every beginning.

What’s the most obvious new beginning you can influence immediately? Every morning when you open your eyes. What’s the first thing you do? Starting this year, I swing my legs out of bed, place them on the floor, look at the clock to see what time it is (I haven’t used an alarm clock in years), and take slow, deep breaths.

I follow the three corrections I wrote about in the ACCJ Journal (March 2014): posture, breathing, and focus. I then ask myself some questions: “Who am I?”, “How can I best contribute today?” or “What will help me be most effective?” Other suggestions include “What am I most grateful for?” All of these put me, and can put you, into a positive frame of mind.

Follow these 15–50 meditative minutes with a big stretch, using Amy Cudder’s victory pose and your day will, at least, start off great.

New beginnings at meetings

All of us attend meetings. How the meeting starts can influence the quality of the meeting as much as anything else. You might want to conduct an experiment we do in some of our training sessions. We divide meeting participants into two groups and assign the same task, such as “Come up with a list of recommendations as to how we can best retain our top talent.”

Both groups are given 10 minutes to work out of earshot from each other on the task. Group A is told, “After every contribution, the next person to speak must respond with, ‘Yes, but . . .’ and then give their contribution.”

However, Group B is told, “After every contribution, the next person to speak must respond with, ‘Yes, and . . .’ and then give their contribution.” This is the only rule, and the only difference between the two groups.

You may or may not be surprised by these results: almost always Group B reports more and better ideas, and say they enjoyed the meeting more than Group A.

Now why is that? Human nature and momentum. Group A (“Yes, but” and its kissing cousin “however”) cancels out all that was said before the “but,” and the person making the contribution feels criticized.

This is especially harmful when done to the first contributor; not only will he or she often clam up for the rest of the meeting, but others are wary of being shot down, too. So the “yes, but-er” has killed two birds with one stone: they’ve hit the first commenter and dissuaded many that could have followed.

Experts: always beginners
In one of my favorite “Rockumentary” scenes, Neal Peart, the great drummer from the Canadian rock band Rush, is shown taking drum lessons from Neil Gruber. You might think this took place early in Peart’s career, but the year was 1994, 20 years after Peart joined the band and 18 years after winning critical acclaim for their album 2112.

Peart is, of course, not alone in honing his craft with a “beginner’s mind.” Carlos Santana, after winning a Grammy Award, said the one reason he keeps going is so he can “learn how to play guitar.”

The worlds of music and sports are filled with stars breaking down their games and “starting over.” But how many of us in business share this approach? Perhaps more of us should

There are new beginnings all around you: the new budget cycle, a new approach with a long-time customer, or a new onboarding process. Although you’ve heard that people don’t like change, it is, rather, that people don’t like the changes they don’t like. If you’ve moved their cheese for no—or a bad—reason, the smart mice will revolt. And some may bolt.

New beginnings at work

Many people complain about a lack of energy at their workplace. According to a recent poll, over 50 percent of American workers are disengaged. But what if you were to take the chance to engage your colleagues at the beginning of each day?

Do people make eye contact at your office? Do they greet each other at all? I hope at least you do.

I’m not saying you need to start each day with the traditional chorei favored by Japanese companies in the past, but how about bringing some new, positive energy into the office rather than looking or hoping for it?

After all, emotion—i.e., energy in motion—is contagious, and you can kick off the day, like your meetings, with a positive start.

The average workday in Tokyo is about as long as a trans-Pacific flight. Start off in the right direction, and you increase your chances of getting you and your team where you want to go. Start off wrong, and you’ll have a lot more corrections to make, and you just may run out of gas.

What new beginning would you like to see this month? Start today!

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Andrew Silberman is president and chief enthusiast of AMT Group (www.amt-group.com) and an elected governor of the ACCJ. Andrew@amt-group.com.

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