I recently gave a talk to a group of MBA students at a well-known Japanese university about the top questions that run through the minds of successful global companies when interviewing senior executives for general management roles in Japan. We discussed eight core areas which – based on my experience – are sure to be top of the mental check-list for these companies hiring at this most senior level.
You may be surprised not to see any questions related to “traditional” competencies such as Driving Results, Strategic Thinking, Business Mindset, or Financial Acumen etc. listed below. These competencies (all typically associated with IQ) continue to be of paramount importance as key success factors in most executive assignments, and you can count on them to be explored in-depth during any rigorous interview process. At the same time, however, the “core eight” areas below – all facets of emotional intelligence (EQ) and some related character traits – are arguably of such fundamental importance that if you fail to convince your interviewer on any one of them, strength in other areas of competence will all but cease to matter. If you take a quick look at the overall research related to leadership and EQ (how we manage behaviour, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions to achieve results) it’s easy to see why: the critical factor that sets star performers apart from others is EQ – a connection so strong that 90% of top performers have high EQ. And on the other hand, people with average IQs are shown to outperform those with the highest IQs 70% of the time.
I have expanded on these eight core areas in detail below. Please note that this is intended as part of a wider holistic discussion rather than a “be all and end all”. My hope is that it will at least be useful reading for anyone starting to interview for executive roles at global companies for the first time, as well as for more experienced leaders thinking about a next career step and looking for some additional inspiration along the way. For anyone who finds the list a bit intimidating – do not worry. The good news about EQ is that it’s a flexible and learnable skill, easily improved with practice and effort. Where to start? By emulating the behaviours and habits of emotionally intelligent people.
1. How do you show up?
This is included first because getting it wrong will turn everything else in the interview into an uphill battle. The importance of “showing up” in the right way with your interviewers (IE. Making a positive first impression) during all stages of the hiring process should never be underestimated. Research shows people subconsciously form their first impressions of others within milliseconds – and interviewers of job candidates within the first 7 seconds of a meeting. Research also shows that once an impression is made, it’s very hard to change – even when presented with facts to the contrary. While many companies have consciously made efforts to remove “first impression bias” from their hiring processes in order to focus on the substance, experience, and “fit” of the individual, humans will be humans. Until all executive interviewers are replaced by robots, showing up positively in the eyes of your interview beholder will immediately and undeniably put you at a strong advantage.
There are many well-known facets to “showing up”: the “non-verbal cues” ranging from your body language, eye contact, and hand shake to your choice of accessories, the cleanliness of your shoes, and use of fragrance (don’t use too much). Even the more experienced interviewees, however, often neglect to pay as much attention to their surroundings and context. For example, forgetting you are being observed from the instant you walk into the office reception area, or when addressing the waiting staff at a job interview over lunch (an otherwise excellent Japan CEO candidate I know was crossed off the list at the very last step because of the way he spoke to the waitress), or from the first sounds or images projected during a video interview (always make sure you are set up properly well in advance). From the hiring manager’s perspective, if their first impression of you is borderline, how will their employees, partners, and customers react when meeting you for the first time?
2. How distinctive are you?
If you take a close look at the lives and careers of most successful business leaders, they all have one thing in common: a unique story to tell about how they got to where they are now, and where they want to go in the future. They also, typically, have wide-ranging interests and achievements outside their work equally as (and sometimes even more) impressive than their professional careers. Setting up and running an NPO in their spare time, being a published writer of fiction, a martial arts champion, or an award-winning photographer, or avid travel blogger. Essentially, they are all interesting people whom others want to learn more about and get to know better. They are distinctive and memorable. They stand out.
During an executive hiring process, a company’s management will be asking themselves: How interesting is this person? What’s unique about their story? What risks have they taken in life? What “war stories” do they have to tell? How curious are they about new experiences? What impact do they want to make? And ultimately: Will I remember this person among all the other candidates I’m also meeting?
There’s always one candidate during an executive search process who has the impressive background, academic credentials, corporate pedigree, and who looks great on paper – but who for some reason ends up being unmemorable, and whose name is recalled only with difficulty. He/she invariably ends up being the “back-up option”, and being passed over for the job. Don’t let that person be you. Think about your story (or your “brand”) and practice communicating it. Think about what you want your interviewers to know about you – and why. And if you don’t feel you’re interesting enough? Then maybe it’s time to get a new hobby, find a meaningful new pursuit, or become an expert in a new space.
3. How flexible are you?
We live in a VUCA world. One of constant disruption and being disrupted. Globalization, digitization, outsourcing, the Gig Economy, the Sharing Economy, the Subscription Economy, the Creative Class. A world where Netflix was a DVD rental outfit 20 years ago and – for one symbolic moment in 2018 – became more valuable than Disney. In an age where businesses are constantly changing, adapting, redesigning, and re-deploying themselves, desperately trying to keep up with their customers’ evolving habits and needs, it’s unsurprising that one key quality prioritized by successful companies above almost all else is flexibility. The ability and willingness to constantly adapt, learn, unlearn, re-learn, and apply in any environment. Essentially, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to thrive amidst change.
According to Netflix’s culture deck, “Flexibility is more important than efficiency in the long term” – which, looking at the way the company has evolved, speaks for itself. Dani Reiss, CEO of luxury brand Canada Goose, looks for executives who are excited by “A wild ride and journey”, telling them: "Your job is going to be different in 12 months. I can't tell you today what that job will be, but I can tell you that it's not going to be the same as it is today." And Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab, is known to take finalist candidates to breakfast, where he asks the restaurant to intentionally mess up their order. Based on how they react, he’s able to see for himself how they respond to unexpected change and adversity. If you react too aggressively on the one hand, or too indifferently on the other, don’t expect to be invited back.
Expect your interviewers to ask what changes you have made in your career, and your life in general, and why. About your track record of making change happen, not just being part of it. About your experience working in unstructured environments, and how you manage ambiguity. And about the last time something unexpected happened, and how you dealt with it. Saying, “I’m always fully prepared for all possible scenarios” might just not be the answer they are looking for.
4. How convincing are you?
One of the most common complaints an executive search firm hears from global management looking to hire or replace local leadership in Japan is their apparent inability – or lack of willingness – to persuade and convince global stakeholders about their ideas and opinions. About why the company’s global strategy won’t work in Japan; why Japan requires a different approach to other markets; or why it takes longer to get things done in Japan than in other markets. On the flipside, a common complaint you’ll hear from local executives about their global leadership is that corporate doesn’t understand Japan, and that their company’s inflexible “cookie-cutter” approach doesn’t work here! Why the breakdown? Sometimes related to language issues, cultural differences, a lack of assertiveness, or desire to avoid conflict at a local level. More often than not though, it boils down to a lack of understanding when it comes to how to influence and persuade hearts and minds in a global context.
What's often not realized is that most global companies do in fact want to “act local” in Japan – but need to have the mental, emotional, and strategic clarity around why – often in a sub-context of years of pent-up frustration from Japan being a “black box”. A Global Commercial Head at an international sports company told me last year, “We’re very, very willing to do things differently in Japan. We just need to be convinced about why, how, and what it would look like, that’s all.” Local leaders who learn how to influence their global colleagues on Japan receive endless gratitude, appreciation, and ultimately reward. I recently took a reference for a highly successful consumer goods CEO in Japan, during which her former regional boss told me, “She was the one who finally helped us “get” Japan. She not only gave us detailed data-supported consumer insights. She walked us through the cultural, social, and historic nuances, and examples of failure and success. She told unforgettable stories about Japan, and actually made us feel excited about taking a different strategy in Japan – and delivered on the results she had promised.”
During a hiring process, your interviewers will be listening attentively to examples of when you’ve convinced corporate to try a new approach in Japan, to how you’ve challenged the status quo, to how you structure and communicate your thoughts, to how you break down and simplify complexity, to your capacity to read others’ motives and perspectives, and to whether you can tell a story that gets people excited and fired up about your ideas.
5. How hands-on are you?
Gone are the days where a company will write: “Seasoned, polished relationship builder with an extensive industry network” at the top of the requirements section when hiring at a senior level in Japan. Today’s global companies look for the antithesis of the stereotyped newspaper-reading, golf-playing, wining-and-dining Japanese “shacho”. Amazon calls it a “Willingness to roll up sleeves and get hands dirty” – a company where even the most senior executives are expected to know, off-hand, the day-to-day data and detailed metrics of their businesses. Companies want leaders who won’t flinch at the thought of having to do without an executive assistant for a few weeks if necessary; who will actually be on customer visits with the sales team; who are happy to spend their time meeting potential new hires at university recruiting events. Leaders who keep their finger tightly on the pulse of all veins and arteries running through their organization, leading by example when it comes to going above and beyond and chipping in wherever possible.
One Japan CEO I placed into a 200-person organization last year is exemplary when it comes to being hands-on. During his first month at the company, shocked at the outrageous expenses being spent on corporate interpreters, he instead offered to fill the role of interpreter himself for a full day of global meetings on behalf of his Japan sales team. Not only did he win full respect from the team as well as their global counterparts for his willingness to step in and support. He also learned more about the dynamics, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses of the sales organization in one day than he would have done in a month.
If you are in a role with multiple layers between you and the “gemba” (“shop floor”), be wary: you will be asked questions probing your familiarity with the day-to-day running of your operations, recent company projects and their respective KPIs, the detailed metrics of your balance sheet, and the backgrounds and career aspirations of your up-and-coming junior level employees. If you’d need your right-hand person to help you answer any of these questions, you might want to do some additional thinking before applying to your next management role.
6. How resilient are you?
It is a fact that senior level leadership roles are now tougher and more demanding than ever before. With the unrelenting pressures of working within global matrix organizations, frequent travel through multiple time zones, technology-enabled anytime/anyplace access, and real-time performance tracking systems, current levels of executive stress – and the resulting costs to companies – are unprecedented. So when organizations look for people at the top, they want to be sure they are hiring endurance athletes and not 100m sprinters. Leaders who can set the right pace for the long-haul, and provide the right level of attention and support to others, while mentally and emotionally inspiring their teams towards their respective goals. Putting this into the context of Japan, notorious for its hard work ethic and long working hours, companies are particularly mindful of this when it comes to hiring at the top for their Japan organizations.
People often, I find, misconstrue the notion of resilience with “grit” – or the capacity to push oneself to one’s limits for as long as possible until the job gets done. The most resilient executives are irrefutably tough in this respect – emotionally and mentally, as well as physically. However, they are also masters of self-management who are aware of and respect their own limitations. One regional APAC CEO I know well at a global retail company has the most grueling schedule of anyone I’ve met – including regional and global travel on a monthly basis. And yet he consistently shows up alert, refreshed, and energized. His secret? Being religious about blocking regular time off work well in advance (particularly when he feels he’s approaching his limits), prioritizing sleep, not hesitating to ask for support from all directions whenever he needs it, and spending time with family and friends wherever possible. And importantly, he also encourages his managers to do all of the same – and notices when they do not.
When assessing how resilient you are, companies will spend as much time trying to understand how you manage and support yourself and others through times of stress, as your capacity to manage significant workloads and determination to get the job done. Be mindful of this, perhaps, next time you find yourself trying to impress your interviewer with how hard you are willing to drive yourself and your people to get things done!
7. Are you a good coach?
In 2008, Google set up an internal research initiative called Project Oxygen. The goal: to identify the top common traits and behaviours among their highest-performing managers. Learnings from these surveys, based on insights from 10,000 Google manager observations, were then applied to the company’s manager development programs. Out of the 10 most important manager behaviors, “Is a good coach” topped the list – ranking above others such as “Is a good communicator”, and “Is productive and results-oriented”.
It’s not only Google who prize coach-oriented leaders. For the modern executive, creating a self-learning, self-aware, and self-correcting organization – one that manages and develops itself, readily taking initiative to find the right solutions and to navigate the best way forward without close supervision – is the “holy grail” of leadership. This is in a world where business leaders, more often than not, won’t themselves have all the answers to the challenges tomorrow will bring, increasingly needing to rely on their people to take the lead. Managers who take a top-down “instructional” approach will not create the kind of mindset needed for a self-driving organization. They are also unlikely to resonate with today’s millennial workforce – who seek inspiration, personal growth, and a clear purpose from management, and who have less respect for traditional structures of authority.
Expect to be asked questions about your leadership style, about the high-potentials you’ve nurtured and promoted upwards in your organization, and about how you’ve supported people on your team who have struggled in their roles. You may also be asked about the most insightful feedback you’ve recently received as a leader and how you acted on it, and about what questions you ask yourself to make sure you are continuously growing and heading in the right direction.
8. Do you have a sense of humour?
A recent US-based survey of more 700 CEOs showed that 98% of CEOs favour job candidates with a sense of humour, and that 84% believe people with a sense of humor do better work. Humour in business is starting to be taken so seriously that Stanford Business School started offering a course in it from 2017. Why? Because in today’s high-pressure work environment, research clearly shows that happier teams that prioritize humour at work and regularly laugh together deal more effectively with stress, perform better, and achieve higher results. How? When we laugh, it releases a hormone called oxytocin into the blood stream, which helps to drive social bonding, quickens self-disclosure, and creates feelings of trust. As a result, employees who work in an office where humour is part of the fabric of daily life form better relationships, support and value each other more, and are readier to “lean in” together when the going gets tough.
What does this mean in the context of an executive job interview? While your interviewer is unlikely to ask about your favourite joke, they will be asking themselves questions such as, “Will this person create a fun and enjoyable workplace?”, “Will this leader connect well with our younger employees?”, and “Would I enjoy having dinner with this person every time I visit Japan?” They will be looking for signs of interpersonal charisma and personal chemistry, the ability to get people to open up and trust them, a capacity to diffuse tension during high-pressure situations, and a willingness to take oneself less seriously at times. One Japan CEO I introduced to a distressed premium lifestyle company in urgent need of turning around took advantage of Halloween during his second month in the job, and dressed up as a vampire for a day – even visiting clients in-costume. He was able to bring smiles to the faces of people working in a depleted organization who had become accustomed to losing, and who hadn’t met their quarterly targets for years. This was just the beginning. One year later sales, profitability, and growth had been restored – as had confidence, spirit, morale, and laughter in the workplace.
And what if – like many of us – you wouldn’t necessarily consider “sense of humour” a key strength? Not to worry. The characteristics of great leadership include awareness of one’s gaps as well as strengths, and the ability to surround yourself with the right people accordingly. Appointing a person or team tasked with livening up your organization, with “regular authentic smiles and laughter around the office” as their primary KPI, is just one example of the many things a more “serious-minded” executive can do to overcome this gap. It’s also an example of the kind of ability a prospective employer will be looking for in a new leader, to make sure their Japan team will remain happy and engaged during the peaks as well as the troughs during the long voyage ahead.