Track Record, Flexibility Keys in Exec Search

by Barbara Thoren

Interview with Thomas J. Nevins

Q: Labor consulting and management transfer? do you equate them?
A: No. The name of my company is rather ambiguous. When I started it ten years ago I wasn’t sure if we could make it, doing what I wanted to do, which was labor and personnel consulting. But we were never in technology transfer. We do labor and personnel consulting for multinationals in Japan. And over 15 recruiters handle executive search and scouting of Japanese for foreign companies.

Q: How do you go about your recruiting?
A: Our recruiters mostly telephone people. We don’t run ads to get people to come to us.

Q: In order to know whom to call, would this be a building through word-of-mouth that someone might be a little restless?
A: They’re not necessarily restless. That’s part of the problem. They’re generally passive, happily employed. The receiving client has to sell himself to the candidate. It’s usually the candidate who turns down our clients, not vice versa. With this kind of headhunting, it gets rather expensive, because the client may have to pay a premium to interest him.

Q: Would you call yourselves “raiders” also?
A: Sure. Executive search is a scouting situation where you are basically raiding the best talent from the best companies, to move into other good companies.

Q: How do you know where a person you want is out there?
A: You have a detailed meeting with your client. We already know who the competitors are, and go to those competitors in the industry who handle the same products. Of course if it’s a personnel manager or a comptroller, it doesn’t have to be a competitor at all. We know through experience where to go. We go direct. We can’t talk to a superior about this. It’s clandestine work, because you can’t destroy the man’s career in his current company.

Q: How can you tell how the candidate will work out when he moves?
A: The most important thing is the track record: what has the man done, what has he accomplished so far? If he doesn’t have a track record, that means he was never given a position of responsibility, and there must have been reasons.

Other than that, you also want to look for flexibility. When a Japanese does his first job change, say from a Japanese company into a smaller multinational, it’s a difficult period for him. There are examples where he may be more successful in a second job move to another multi-national, because maybe he wasn’t patient enough, or didn’t realize he had to sell himself more, perhaps be more aggressive as an individual, play a different kind of office politics.

Q: You have written about how difficult it is for a person to move from his company, unless they are quietly trying to unload him. Will the company give him a letter of recommendation?
A: I think that if they’re unloading him, yes, they will gladly give him a recommendation letter and hope the receiving person doesn’t know he’s being unloaded although it would certainly look suspicious. Now if he’s a top performer and they want to keep him but he leaves anyway, then they’re hostile, so they probably wouldn’t. Essentially you really can’t call on the current employer. If the candidate has already given notice, he would change jobs only if he had a formal commitment from the next one to hire him. So in reality recommendation from a current employer comes too late and is not feasible.

Q: That leaves you pretty much on your own scouting, doesn’t it?
A: For the most part, but we already know that a man is good even before we call. Because we’ve placed so many people in other companies, we can often talk to them about someone. Still, we have to be careful. If the candidate’s company finds out that he’s looking around, it can hurt him, though they may offer him a salary increase.

The biggest danger is with job-hoppers, generally people who have changed jobs more than three times. Sometimes there are plausible reasons for this: his boss moved out of the company and took him along; the company went bankrupt; there was a bad problem at home and he had to help with the family business for a few years.

Your hopper is a problem anywhere, because on a three-year cycle, he’ll clear out himself voluntarily, or sense that he’ll be forced out again and just around or before the time that people realize he isn’t doing what he was hired for. There are a lot of people who do move in and out on a three or four year cycle. They are not working for the job, only for the salary.

Actually, you can check them out quite easily. If they’ve changed jobs too many times or are not currently employed, you can call up their former employers who should be more objective about giving a recommendation, though they’re rather ca reful here. A foreigner in Japan knows that there are no laws that will land him in trouble, so he may say, “No, the guy was no good at all.” The difficulty is that should that man still be on his payroll, even if no good and he would be happy to get rid of him, he’d probably say something neutral. He might not want to lie, but he’d say, “Well, he’s competent, I’m kind of disappointed that he’s looking, but I guess that’s the world of work anyway. Go ahead and do what you have to do, we can’t put chains on our people, that’s against Article 18 of the Constitution.”

Q: That’s the message that he won’t be missed?
A: It could be the message, if you can see through it, but a lot depends upon how good the superior is at answering that question.

Q: Aside from the risky ones, in Japan is breaking social ties with his former company people significantly harder than elsewhere?
A: It can be traumatic. It’s tough for them to get away. There are candidates who sign the offer letter, take a trip to the new head office in America or Europe. They may still have so much pressure on them that they decide not to leave after all. The way they should do it is to be very definite when they state that they are leaving, so that the current employer senses no room for a change of mind.

Q: Isn’t it simpler for the executive, once he has moved, to leave Japan for a while because of possible harassment of himself or his family?
A: Yes. In early March we had a doctor start at a multi-national. They’ve sent him to the head office for several months, just to get him away so the former employer can’t get back to him. This was part of our recruiting strategy, to let him know that he’d be out of Japan for three to six months. He knew this would help him break away.

Thomas J. Nevins is President of Technics in Management Transfer Inc. (TMT), a labor consulting and executive recruitment firm which he established in Tokyo in 1978. TMT also has an Access Business Associates (ABA) division for clerical placement which is managed by women, primarily for women. He graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. from the School of Industrial Relations. He was sent to Japan by Cornell in 1972 to do research at the Japan Institute of Labor, and was involved as a contract consultant with unions and companies here. A writer of numerous magazine and newspaper articles, his books published are Passport to Japan – A Businessman’s Guide (revised annually)” The Complete Handbook of U.S. Personnel and Labor Relations for Japanese Corporations and the most recent, Labor Pains and the Gaijin Boss (pub. The Japan Times 1984). Though fluent in Japanese and an expert in planning management strategies, he sometimes loses to his young son at chess.

Barbara Thoren is a Canadian journalist living in Japan for 20 years.