One of the most difficult jobs for the foreign CEO of an organization in Japan is finding trusted, capable, and effective right-hand men (or women) to assist with operations and the general affairs of running a company, i.e. a COO or CIO. If you have the cash and a mandate from Head Office, it is possible to make a focused and effective search, but you do need to know where to look.

Hiring senior managers is always a tricky task. As I’ve written before, it’s easy to pick up someone who looks great on paper, presents well, speaks excellent English, and yet in reality is being ditched by their employer for non-performance – in effect they’re tired and seeking a safe job until they retire. The risk of not getting a thoroughly researched person increases even more if the prospective employer doesn’t use a reputable recruiter with the resources to dig up the truth.

However, one technique that has worked very well for me in helping my clients, is to identify and approach the COO of a younger entrepreneurial company, where the CEO has been pushing the team extremely hard for results and where the senior managers are working at the actual “coal face”. For a start there are not many successful start-ups in Japan, and those that have made it, you can be pretty sure the CEO has been driving their staff mercilessly. For the first stage of growth, these mostly younger CEOs rely very heavily on the famed characteristics of any dedicated Japanese employee, namely: loyalty, obedience, a willingness to suffer, and a keen need to perform for a demanding boss. In fact, so long as the person can think and has ambitions as well, these are also some of the same traits so badly needed in a growing foreign organization in Japan.

The trick in finding such people is to identify an appropriate company that currently employs such a person, and watch the CEO’s style. If the CEO is very much into grandstanding with the press and/or running their operations in an autocratic manner, you can pretty much be sure that their 2IC (second in charge) is suffering and is susceptible to a recruiter’s approach. This is particularly so if the company has just been through a major restructuring, and the business is starting to improve again. I find that Japanese senior managers are most receptive to recruiting approaches just when the worst is over and they’re catching their breath – a sort of backlash effect after the pressure eases.

From experience, I have found some very well educated, motivated, connected, and knowledgeable 2ICs around aged 35-45 years old. The thing is however, that they’re not normally on the market, and you have to both get the timing right, and also be sure to offer them a new position that is viewed as being both challenging and worthwhile.

A competent COO can be a goldmine to a company, but they need to be managed right. Firstly, they will almost always want to leave for ego reasons (pushy CEO behavior does rub off over time) and therefore be given a chance to run their own piece of the business. Secondly, some flexibility will be required by the employer – the level of person we are talking about will create a vacuum upon leaving, thus encouraging the existing CEO to work hard to keep them. Thirdly, and probably the most difficult, the prospective candidate needs to have their expectations balanced with the sales pitch inevitably used to get them interested in the first place (in other words, the CEO of the hiring company has to be very honest). This will ensure that there is no combination of disappointment in the new job and threats of continuing pitches coming back from the previous CEO.

As always, my contact details are simply: Looking forward to getting some enquiries…