Robert Walters head sees innovation in business practices, corporate culture

Japan Inc. seen embracing change slowly but surely

by Jane Kitagawa

Contributing Writer

Name: David Swan
Title: Managing Director, Robert Walters Japan (since 2009)
URL: www.robertwalters.co.jp/en
DOB: March 24, 1971
Hometown: Sydney
Years in Japan: 23

Sitting in a Shibuya meeting room at the Tokyo headquarters of human resources and specialist recruitment consultancy Robert Walters Japan, David Swan cuts a swarthy, muscular figure. A regular weightlifter, he also moves with a grace that can be pinned back to the days when he first learned karate. It was the sport that first spawned his interest in Japan and the impetus for him initially coming to this country.

“I wanted to do something very different,” Swan began when asked by The Japan Times about his motivation for coming to Japan, noting that when he arrived on a working holiday visa in his early twenties, it was the first time he had left Australia. Growing up in rural New South Wales, and regularly moving around because of his father’s job as a civil engineer working in local government, he initially thought he would stay in Japan for about six months, “… but here I am, 20 to 25 years later.”

Moving from small Australian towns to one of the busiest and largest cities in the world was indeed an initial culture shock, but Swan’s nomad-like background helped with the transition. He fell in love with the country.

“I was in the Australian public school system,” Swan explained. “You meet all types in that part of the world, a lot of different personality types and people from different walks of life, and I’ve gotten very used to having to adjust to unfamiliar situations.” Swan acknowledged that such skills in building rapport have also helped him in his current role as managing director at Robert Walters Japan.

His interest and training in karate also helped in learning about his new home — “Traditional culture underpins so much of what happens in Japan.” Swan now applies the martial arts’ learning fundamentals of kata, structured routines or protocols, to other areas in his life, such as studying Japanese through Kumon every day.

But Swan continues to find Japan surprising.

“I’m surprised at how diverse Japan can be,” he said, noting, “There is such a diversity in who (the Japanese) are as characters.”

Change, and how it occurs in Japan, remains another surprise. “Change happens here in a very interesting way. The lead-up to change is very slow, and then all of a sudden when the change is going to happen, it’s super swift. (Change) happens overnight. Generally, once a decision’s made it’s very peaceful and everybody gets on with it.”

It’s this pace of change, Swan posits, that helps explain why Japan ranked last among 11 Asian nations in appeal to highly skilled foreigners according to the 2017 IMD World Talent Ranking, and worldwide, 51st among 63 nations. While language barrier and inflexible business practices are seen as contributing factors, Swan believes the former is less of an issue than the latter.

“I think that the language barrier is more of a perceived issue than a real issue,” he noted. “I think there are plenty of jobs, particularly in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, that don’t particularly require very high levels of Japanese ability, especially with international companies. Japanese people all learn six years of English in (junior high and) high school and they’re actually surprisingly better at it than one might think.

“What I think is more of the issue, for those who try it, is Japanese corporate culture; changing corporate cultures and work styles (in Japan) is a big issue. If we are to generalize, because certainly all companies are not like this, a Japanese corporate culture is typically epitomized by fairly long hours in the office, not necessarily productive hours. It is a culture of not necessarily being able to speak openly and say what you think, and a very top-down approach to getting business done. For someone coming from a Western culture, that can often be not so appealing.”

While Robert Walters deals primarily with multinationals and more progressive Japanese companies, from his personal discussions and findings from Robert Walters Salary Survey 2018 (Japan), a comprehensive review of professional salaries and recruitment trends from around the country, Swan says change is occurring, albeit in “fits and starts.” Big changes, such as English being used internally, and management being open to female professionals, non-Japanese candidates and people from LGBT backgrounds are certainly “progressive and proactive.”

For those professionals considering living and working in Japan, Swan cites his own experience and describes it as “the best decision you could ever make.” Suggesting improvement is needed in explaining current day Tokyo, he also warns about outdated stereotypes.

“Tokyo, in my opinion, is the best city. It’s safe, people are friendly, it’s efficient and it’s clean. It has absolutely everything going for it … but I think [professionals] have this image of what they saw of the bubble era and the ’80s; of things being incredibly expensive and people living in tiny little shoe box apartments … it’s just not like that anymore.”

While there is demand for professionals experienced in strategic decision making, such as human resources business partners, financial planners and data analysts, or for those working in emerging fields, such as financial technology, Swan maintains anyone coming to Japan will at the very least walk away with a valuable learning experience. “Coming to Japan has helped me grow in more ways than I would’ve ever thought,” he said. “To interact in a different society where you bring different ideas, is valuable to you, and to the society as well.”

Financial background brings Tokyo success

A native of Australia, David Swan assumed the post of managing director of Robert Walters Japan in 2009, just seven years after joining the company. Before taking on this role, he worked as director of the Financial Services Division for over six years. A qualified Australian certified practicing accountant with a bachelor of commerce degree in accounting from the University of Canberra, Swan worked primarily in public accounting and finance before joining Robert Walters in 2002. In 2010, his role expanded to include working as managing director of the Korea office.

Having moved to Japan in 1994, he has made Japan his home for over 20 years.

His hobbies include lifting weights, playing bass guitar and performing music with friends.

The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.