Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Global Human Resources consultant
(In Japan this time since November 2007)
We’ve interviewed people who came from “literally” all over the world. We did not have the intention of meeting people from around the world in order to convey the notion that “at the core, all people are essentially the same.” But, after many interviews, this is a point that I have heard echoed time and time again.
Recently we met a man who espouses such ideas. Bryan Sherman, American born and raised, now calls Tokyo home. He explains what he believes is the true meaning of the word “Global mindset” – a meaning which tends to be misunderstood or not understood at all by most people.
In a national Japanese magazine interview that was published in 2015, we read with intrigue what Bryan was quoting as saying,
“What you need when you communicate with people from abroad is to find within yourself the way to make a personal connection and not simply eye them with preconceived notions about how such a person from such a country should be. In order to do that way, you need to have a strong sense of self to convey your own ideas fully while also possess the power to empathize with the other person.”
We couldn’t agree more with his words. So we asked him for an interview to explore how he developed that belief. And he shared with us the source of his convictions which harked back to his childhood in New York City.
*Interview at Tokyo American Club
A border crossing at age 13
When I was 13, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan for the first time. I joined a sister city exchange program dubbed the “Young Diplomats Program” which was piloted by the New York City Board of Education.
For two weeks, I lived in a homestay, attended local junior high school and toured Tokyo and the environs. This was my first experience to cross a national border. I couldn’t speak Japanese at all and of course couldn’t understand it. Initially, I was not inclined to eat the local cuisine (but I did like the soy sauce and sugar scrambled eggs my host mother cooked).
Through the limited English of the Japanese students and even more limited Japanese phrases we Americans had learned along with a lot of body language, we were able to begin to communicate somehow. And then we laughed together when we felt happy, we cried together when we parted with each other.
It was a wave of emotions. Even today, the images from those two weeks are strong in my memory.
Finding the seeds of a life’s work in my youth
When I was 17, I returned to Japan for the second time to join an international summer camp called the Pacific Rim International Camp (“PRIC”). This time, all together I stayed for a month with time spent in Tokyo and the mountains of Nagano. Within the camp program, I was tasked with sharing the American culture with the Japanese and other international campers.
It was the first time I had to think about the defining characteristics of American culture. To that point, I had tended to think that America was the “default” way to be and think – who doesn’t know about America? After all, the lessons from my schooling led me to believe that America is the best country in the world, that anyone would want to be American given the chance. What could I say about America that others did not know? But by looking at my American context from afar and talking with my fellow campers, I came to understand more about what makes me “American” and how American originated perspectives may not be in full alignment with others. After all, I came to meet more and more people who were not American – and content with that very fact.
The lesson of these two experiences of my youth was clear: When you travel to another country, the sights, sounds and smell can be vastly different than what you are used to. While cultural norms do frame our perspectives about the world, culture is just one layer. Cultural layers may be thick and deep rooted, but if we take the time to peel away these layers, we can find essentially similar core elements – I became fascinated with this process of inquiry.
In Japan as a young adult
I majored in political science and also studied Japanese at Williams College. I chose to spend my junior year in the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP) at Doshisha University. During this time, I developed my Japanese communication skills.
Upon graduation, I was accepted to the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, a program sponsored by the Japanese government with the aim of promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations. I worked at a school in Toyama Prefecture as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) for a year and then worked in the Kurobe City Hall as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) for a year.
When I was 24 or 25, I thought about my future seriously. I had the option of staying in Kurobe for one more year, but I figured it would be better to get on with some type of professional pursuit. So I thought that I should leave the comfort of the countryside and enter some kind of corporate environment.
I knew that I wanted to do something “Japan-related” but I was still at a loss to define how to focus my pursuits. To stay in Japan or to return to the US? To work in a Japanese company or American company? I knew that I had a good enough baseline understanding of Japanese culture and language, but I was also aware that if I did not apply myself to some specific functional pursuit, my cross-culture experiences would just end up being nothing more than a youthful frolic.
I resolved to return home to New York where I had the fortune to join a company where I could apply my “cultural understanding” but also learn a focused professional discipline. I entered a growing human resources consulting firm, headed by an American and Japanese. I worked primarily with the US-subsidiaries of Japanese companies. I look back upon this era in my life as the point where I was able to bridge the youthful interest in Japanese culture and language to my adult work life.
In the US with Japanese companies
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in our midtown Manhattan office preparing to head out to a Japanese trading company on the west side to assist in a training program. Of course, the training program was postponed. For most people in New York on that day, what followed was a period of introspection.
I thought about what I should do and asked myself if I wanted to continue in this job.
Then I got an opportunity to be transferred to the West Coast. We had a sales partner in Los Angeles, but there was no HR consulting team there to do the work. So I organized a regional office there. I was happy because I could have an experience of building a business from scratch. I worked there for a few years.
But I felt I needed to round out my experience.
I thought, “consultants are just ‘outsiders’. If I am going to be able to deepen the level of advice I give to clients, I also need to have experience inside of a type of company to which I am consulting.”
So I decided to leave consulting… at least temporarily.
Entering a Japanese company
I got a phone call from one of my former clients.
“What are you going to do now that you left the consulting company?”
“First, I am going to enjoy the drive to New York from Los Angeles.”
We met upon my return to New York. I became the locally hired HR and Business Development manager for this subsidiary of a large Japanese IT company. In my role, I oversaw all of the HR operations for the New York and Texas offices.
With my background in Japanese culture and language combined with my “inside” and “outside” HR management experience, I decided to return to Japan.
I applied to various companies while still in New York. After a final interview in Tokyo, I was accepted into the HQ HR Department of Japan’s leading apparel company. With a fast expansion plan to become renowned on the world stage, I was thrust into the HR operations of a company globalizing from Japan.
I was involved in bridging the structures, processes and relations between the overseas subsidiaries and the Headquarters in Tokyo. My work brought me to locales across Asia, Russia, Europe and North America.
HR consultant to overseas subsidiaries of Japanese companies; HR manager within an overseas subsidiary of a Japanese company; HR manager at the headquarters of a Japanese company… I learned about the globalization process of Japanese companies from various perspectives. With this past experience as my base, I was getting ready to take a new step towards bringing another goal to fruition.
I’ve wanted to build my own brand from scratch since I started my career at a consulting firm in New York.
I established my own company called “Gramercy Engagement Group” in Tokyo on February 1st, 2010. My business has evolved to the provision of inter-related but distinct service lines: Consulting, Training, and Facilitation (with a smattering of HR-related translation).
Finding similarities in a sea of differences
Nowadays, when we talk about globalization, either political or economic, the essential element for success is to cross borders and seek to find a level of commonality upon which we can create new relations and grow.
Just by chance – or was it something fateful, I don’t know that my first opportunity to leave my native New York was to fly to Tokyo. From that point though, I found within me a sense of my life’s work – to try to bridge gaps across boundaries. Japan is the place from which I do this. My professional focus is to do this by promoting the globalization of Japanese company policies, procedures and methods for global human resource development across their Japan Headquarters and overseas subsidiary operations.
Japanese companies that have their headquarters in Japan and have production & sales bases overseas need to send staff abroad, and in turn do business in the different environments.
Starting from my home-base in the US, I learned about the types of challenges people who were sent to the US from Japan would face, what kinds of worries they would have, and what kinds of personnel issues the companies had on the job. I talked to them face-to-face and clarified the common points and differences between Japan and the US, and considered how both the Japanese and the American side needed to open both their minds and hearts to find success in the US together. Those experiences helped me make professional progress.
Now, I have formulated my experiences into an original training program for HR professionals from Japan who are steadily finding that their work is not only Japan-based anymore. In this program participants learn about general concepts in global HR management and consider how widespread the concepts are in Japan in order to begin to develop a stronger perspective and analytical skill to assess how closely aligned traditional domestic Japanese HR practices are to the contexts in overseas markets. Participants learn that globally accepted HR standards are not necessarily different from, or better than Japanese practices. Sometimes Japanese ideals may even have wide appeal outside of Japan. Sometimes Japanese ideals are widely distant from the ideas that have taken root in other contexts.
I tell participants that in the realm of HR there are differences and there are similarities in HR practices across the globe. It is your job to find out where these similarities and differences are meaningful and have an impact on the business.
There are differences everywhere in the world. Each country has their own laws, each country has their own customs and food culture. There are so many differences, that’s why I believe it’s important for us to have a sense of overcoming those kinds of differences.
Also we have developed training programs for mid-level executives to increase their global leadership presence by increasing their capability to communicate effectively in various situations. When I work with cross-functional members of the Headquarters, the common challenge for all participants is to speak from the right “stance” vis-à-vis the issues at hand: sometimes the HQ personnel need to be directive; sometimes they need to be supportive. Being able to flexibly choose the right “communication tool” for the situation is essential for developing effectively collaborative relations across borders.
There is a common theme that runs throughout all of our training programs: The need to become sensitive to commonalities, as well as awareness of the differences. To enable participants to become conscious of various kinds of differences, learn how to deal with and when possible to overcome such differences in order to seek out those core essential commonalities that can lead to fruitful and effective business dealings.
Striving to do business in Japan in accordance with Japanese standards and expectations
Starting up a business in Japan is not easy for a foreigner. But neither is it easy for a Japanese person. For a business to survive in this environment, the business must provide a product or service that holds up to the scrutiny of a detail-oriented and demanding customer. In this way, foreign business owners are tasked with providing business services that provide unique value, above and beyond what a Japanese business person can provide.
Fortunately I feel supported by Japan as I seek to find the right level of products and services for contributing to the globalization efforts of Japanese corporations. I can realize my own dreams and aspirations while in Japan. So I’m truly thankful to this country.
Gramercy Engagement Group: www.gramercyengagement.com *Japanese