Part Two of a series To read Part One, click here.
MANAGEMENT OF FOREIGNERS
The deep level of dissatisfaction of many foreign teachers and managers in Japan is the topic of this second article. Let me say that this article is not intended to be a Japanese management bashing article, but a sincere effort to articulate why there is such a gap between the foreign employees and Japanese management in the Language School Industry specifically, but applicable to other industries in Japan that employ foreigners.
POOR MANAGEMENT = BAD BUSINESS
The current level of dissatisfaction in the language school industry is partly the result of the management styles of the language school companies themselves. If you meet and talk to 10 teachers out on the street and you ask them what they think about working for their language school, you usually get a lot of negative responses (some quite strongly) to the tune of 9+ out of 10 in my general experience. The ones who are happy with their place of employment usually work in small family run schools and they feel recognized and lucky to work in such a place alongside an owner who sincerely cares about them, the students, and the quality of learning that exists in the school.
GOOD MANAGEMENT = GOOD BUSINESS
It is my belief both as a teacher and now a school owner that managing foreign teachers is not as difficult as it is being made by the management of the current larger schools in the market. The common management practices and approach to managing foreigners is a problem that has been building up for a long time, and the more recent and steady decline in the language school industry in Japan has only added fuel to that fire of dissatisfaction as the struggles have intensified.
THE CULTURE BARRIER
There are cultural differences relating to how foreigners expect to be treated and what kind of environment we expect to work in. In the language school industry, age and generation gap differences have exacerbated an already difficult management relationship between Japanese senior management and foreign teachers and employees. To put it in its simplest terms, the most common scenario is one where senior management in many companies tends to be "Analog Era" 50-60-year-old Japanese who are setting management policy for a work force that is 70-80% foreigners and almost entirely in their 20s and early 30s. The age gap is a contributing factor, the cultural gap is a major factor, and lastly the way in which foreigners are quite often treated as a disposable resource with no vision for career development and opportunities is also a contributing factor.
ARE FOREIGNERS TRANSIENT?
In my discussions with Japanese senior executives, foreigners are often viewed as transient, and thus likely to head back to their home country within a year or two. This has largely been the case in their experience. Most foreigners do head home after two years or less. Another common complaint from Japanese school owners is that foreigners are irresponsible.
Again there is some validity to this argument on a surface level as many new teachers coming to Japan are fresh out of college and being thrown into a foreign country and a foreign company culture where all of the other foreign staff are bad mouthing the company (in contrast to the great story of fun and adventure in Asia they were told at the recruiting desk back in the West) that they just joined. They end up being fairly irresponsible due to age, and work environment. Most young new foreign employees fall, or are pulled into that negative, dissatisfied employee culture immediately creating a vicious cycle that reproduces itself.
From the J-management point of view, their belief that foreigners are transient and not responsible is thus validated. Japanese management see this problem as foreigners being highly negative, non-group oriented selfish individuals.
BUILDING A GREAT COMPANY CULTURE
Building the right educational and corporate environment (you need both!) is an absolute must. People want to be appreciated, and want to be part of a group that is going somewhere and appreciates the contribution of the individual to the team, not just the team. Employees want to be shown appreciation and have their value recognized by their peers and their bosses. Retention and development of your (front line) best people is a must. Recognition and appreciation are not a luxury, but rather the essence of good management.
Great people set high standards and high bars that others tend to migrate and work towards, creating a virtuous cycle of improvement. When those top performers who carry a lot of knowledge, experience and passion leave the organization due to lack of recognition and value driven work environment it is a "dumbing down" of the organization and a major lowering of "the bar." If you have ever worked in a company where a pool of really motivated and talented people are working passionately towards a mutually agreed goal, it is like an unstoppable freight train with everyone being carried excitedly towards a place where the possibilities are unlimited and where output and achievement seem nearly effortless at times.
THE PERFECT STORM - Tribal Leadership Example
Good storm: Authors Logan, King, and Wright in their book "Tribal Leadership" define the point where a company is just about perfect as the following. "Your teams hardly ever refer to the competition, except to note how remarkable their own culture is by comparison, and how far their results outstrip industry norms. The time of communication is limitless potential, bounded only by imagination and group commitment. People in this culture can find a way to work with almost anyone, provided their commitment to values is at the same intensity as their own. They have resonate values. There is almost no fear, stress, or workplace conflict. People talk as though the world is watching them, which may well be the case, as their results are making history."
When was the last time you heard of anything near this kind of workplace in the language school industry?
Bad Storm: "In the worst cases most people talk as though they are alienated from organizational concerns. When they cluster together, they form isolated gangs that operate by their own rule, employees seem to not care about what's going on. They do the minimum to get by, showing almost no initiative or passion. They cluster together in groups that encourage passive-aggressive behavior (talking about how to get out of work, or how to shine the boss on) while telling people in charge that they are on board with organizational initiatives. The theme of their communication is that no amount of trying or effort will change their circumstances, and giving up is the only enlightened thing to do. From a managerial perspective, nothing seems to work - team building, training, even selective terminations appear to do nothing to change the prevailing mood. The culture is an endless well of unmet needs, gripes, disappointments, and repressed anger."
Sound familiar? If you have ever talked to an English teacher in Japan then this will sound very familiar and very likely if you work in this industry it will resonate strongly with you.
IS THE CUSTOMER REALLY KING?
In the greater Japanese marketplace, "The customer is King" is a common expression - ("Okyakusan wa kamisama") - which has clouded management's vision to the degree that the front line employees feel unimportant, and do not thus respect, and respond to the directives of management. If instructors are not taken care of, treated fairly, and motivated properly, then the teaching quality and service will continue to under-perform your, the customers, and the market’s expectations. In the case of teachers this has meant minimum effort being given by good people because they often feel “what’s the point?"
People in these kind of organizations go to work for a paycheck and do what they have to do to get by, but are often seeking that “missing something” that they are hoping they can find somewhere else. Some people may say that the individual has the sole responsibility to do the best they are capable of, but even good people can put out less than optimal effort over time when in an uninspired work place that suppresses creativity and contribution by the motivated individual.
The success of the employee is ABSOLUTELY the sole area of responsibility of the executives and management.
My question to managers who are constantly blaming employees for underperforming is; "Who hired them?" You did, or your company did, and you are a manager within that organization. If that is the case, then you are the person who is ultimately under performing in your role as a recruiter, mentor, and team leader. You choose the employee, or your company did, and you either made the wrong decision or you have not created an environment that is conducive to the individual or the teams growth.
In the case where you are “handed” your employees and have no choice in their selection whatsoever, you need to do everything you can to change that and be the decision maker to shape your team correctly. Unfortunately here in Japan, the gap is often so big between senior and junior management that, in the simplest terms, often companies give managers the title, the responsibility and supposed power, but completely strip them of any decision making power in the selection of their new employees.
A WINNING COMPANY CULTURE
The approach of successful schools in handling foreigners and their own Japanese staff that I have seen and tried to model our businesses after, has been to focus on creating a great work environment. This sends the message that management sees them as an important asset for the company. Caring is not a "strategy" it is something you do. It is shown in every action management takes towards its employees. It is usually clearly indicated by direct and consistent feedback, and honest sincere recognition from management. Failures are dealt with fairly and used as learning experiences guided by senior people who care for the development and well being of the employee.
FAR FROM NORMAL
To people working in the language school industry, this may seem so far from the "norm," that it sounds nearly ridiculous. The reality is that this is the way that things are supposed to function in a healthy organization. Simple, honest, sincere, direct praise in a face-to-face manner, or even via email when coming from people you like, trust, admire, and respect makes for powerful motivation for good people.
The fact that these types of actions are so lacking in comparison to other industries, and most especially in regards to foreign employees, to be honest is why I believe that at this time the opportunities in the language school, and service industry in Japan are greater than they have ever been. Manual mode management has left a lot of truly great employees, and teachers seeking but often unable to find, a new environment that is based on these fundamental business tenets. One axiom that I absolutely believe is that where the best teachers go, the students eventually tend to follow.
HOW TO MOTIVATE AND KEEP A FOREIGN EMPLOYEE
In the language school industry and in any service industry in Japan, finding management who actively work to develop their foreign employees, provide opportunities for, and honestly seek out feedback (which they listen to and sincerely take in) from their foreign employees about their performance is almost unheard of. Managers who are fair and legitimate while being focused on mentoring and helping the foreign employee succeed in their jobs is something that is quite uncommon. There are of course exceptions to this, and I hope some of the people who choose to comment on this article can provide some additional examples, and they would be most welcome.
EFFECTIVELY MANAGING FOREIGN EMPLOYEES
Getting back to our topic of language schools, the schools that effectively manage their foreign employees do this by inspiring their employees with involvement, opportunities and a career path that gives them legitimate opportunity to be part of something significant. The companies that do this inevitably find that their foreign employees choose to stay a lot longer, and give a lot more to their co-workers, customers and the organization.
To some degree in the case of the language school industry, I think it can be said that some companies not only embrace a high turnover of foreign staff, but to a degree encourage it to keep short term fixed costs low. The intangible costs though of losing someone who now knows your business and customers is hard to pinpoint in detail on a balance sheet, but the net results are unhappy customers, higher employee and customer recruiting costs, and an increase in stress for the Japanese staff which inevitably impact the sales and profitability of the business.
The Japanese staff stress load is greatly reduced if teacher turnover and associated complaints from students about teachers decreases due to effective sincere management. With effective management focused on retention, employee satisfaction, and motivation, the related costs of recruiting go down. The net customer oriented skill and intelligence increase. The environment of the schools can be changed dramatically to the benefit of EVERYONE who works and studies there.
The J-Staff - Native Japanese and foreign employees have generally different criteria for determining a satisfying work environment.
Using obvious generalizations (each person is of course unique so forgive me for working in generalizations here), most Japanese employees prefer to have a defined area of responsibility and not be asked to deviate from this very often without reasonably and sometimes not so reasonably extensive preparation and training. So when a foreign boss, as standard practice, asks a Japanese employee to do things that are not necessarily part of their ordinary responsibility or job outline repeatedly, maybe pushes them to make decisions independently, then the Japanese employee often times tends to find this to be very stressful and the work environment not particularly enjoyable.
The Gaijin (Foreign) Staff - On the other hand, many foreigners think the common Japanese way of going by the book and constantly limiting the scope of their work to ONLY what they have been trained to do is akin to production line work. This type of work is not fulfilling for many people from Western backgrounds, and most especially those who work in a service industry. Again, please forgive the generalizations here.
DECISION-MAKING PROCESS - LOW PROFILE VS HIGH PROFILE
Similarly, Japanese people and foreigners (especially Westerners) differ in their approach to decision making. Most Japanese employees tend to work well in groups and feel more comfortable having a group consensus on decisions wherever possible. They try to maintain a low general personal risk profile within the organization. The opposite tends to be true for your average foreign employee who generally likes to get involved and feel empowered when asked to make decisions and give opinions. Foreigners by and large as a group don't mind raising their personal risk profile a bit if there are opportunities to be gained.
“Pegged. I feel like I am working in a box with no wiggle room" - Most foreigners do not want to be pegged into one singular role with no ability to contribute, give opinions, be valued in other ways above and beyond their daily teaching. Foreigners in general tend to feel that they have value and can add something to the growth of the business outside of their hired job. Most often times they are right, and in the right environment and with the right leadership and motivation they can start to test their limits and contribute in new and exciting ways. In the language school teacher case, and in my experience, teachers are often told or at least strongly hinted at that they just need to teach, and keep out of trouble. When they try to contribute or offer constructive criticism or opinions, those opinions fall on deaf ears or are often squashed, sometimes quite harshly.
NEW EMPLOYEE ORIENTATION - EVERYTHING YOU SHOULD NOT DO
There are many schools that start out their new employees orientation process by giving them a whole orientation and several pages of documentation on all the things the teacher should not do. There are legal reasons for this as there have been problems in the past for example with teachers dating students and having bad break-ups that lead to contract cancellations and thus rules to limit or even forbid outside contact have been formed as a result. That they are trying to protect themselves from unforeseen liabilities, and litigation. I can relate to and to a degree can understand. But, on the other hand to start out your new employee's orientation with a huge chunk of it being all about "what not to do" is probably the worst thing you can do to a new hire. De-motivation, and deflation of expectations set in right from the very beginning.
HR “sending in a new hire” vs Direct Manager has final say - The branch manager ALWAYS in my opinion should ALWAYS make the final decision on the hire as he or she is the one who is making a commitment to that teacher/employee that “I choose you” and believe that you are the right person. There is no worse situation than having someone sent to you from “HR” that you believe does not fit your team and your culture in that school or office. Again, de-motivation sets in, frustration sets in, and often times the seeds for good people leaving are now planted at the very earliest stage of employment.
Teaching is a highly personal experience and the members of the team should be selected with care for each group, by the group leader. In our case, this is the branch manager who's job it is to develop and foster success for this new employee. Hiring people that you like, admire, trust and respect are a very important part of the budding work place relationship. Trying to "cookie cutter" the right kind of employee from home office HR is a major mistake. Hiring from HR and “sending in” the new staff often times results in failure as there is no commitment from the person who will be managing the new staff. Why? because he did not make the decision and is completely un-empowered in the process of selection.
This may all sound like common sense upon reading it, but it is quite amazing how little of this thinking is applied in service industry companies in Japan, and most especially in our language school industry. The big difference in the language school industry to other industries in Japan is the fact that a disproportionate percentage of the employees are not Japanese, they are foreigners. In our company, that ratio is roughly 7 out of 10 employees is a foreigner. The expectations of a foreign employee are different and their needs are different and the current generation of executives seem to be struggling to find any kind of viable foreigner oriented management philosophy and system. It makes for a most frustrating situation for both parties and something has to break.
The loss of experienced employees, who understand your business methodology, know the many idiosyncrasy's of your customers, and who have become an asset to the company and their co-workers is devastating to a business’s chance of sustainable success and growth. The reputation of a service company in employee circles dictates how successful that company can be at attracting real quality talent, and thus in the end retain customers. The quality of the people who work in this kind of service industry absolutely dictates without a single doubt the quality of the customer experience. How can you say you put the "customer first" if you are not first putting the people who work in your company first. They are the ones who deliver the service and if they are dissatisfied... good luck on having great customer satisfaction, retention, and in the end staying in business. This is a well documented failing of the current industry companies.
TALENT ATTRACTS TALENT
In closing, retaining your talent, and developing your new talent is the cornerstone of any good company. The net result is to increase a businesses productivity (in our case, it equals teacher quality and lesson quality) and effectiveness which benefits the employees and the customers and creates a fantastic cycle of steady improvement and satisfaction for all parties involved. The establishment and then steady nurturing and care of the companies reputation via being a great place to work steadily allows a company and in our case a school to recruit high integrity talent. Talented people set a high bar which very clearly sets expectations with current and prospective employees about what kind of work ethics and characteristics are rewarded. The end results are success and a great place to build a career.
CUSTOMER 2ND APPROACH
I debated a lot with our staff about putting our company slogan into this article. In the end they felt strongly enough that I have gone ahead and included this last section entitled "Customer Second."
I believe that customer second oriented customer service companies have the ability to have the best customer service, to the degree that our company slogan has always been "Customer Second." Yes, go ahead and read that line again... it never fails to get a "huh... is that a misprint?" Yes it is not a misprint. The concept originated with Hal Rosenbluth of Rosenbluth Travel. We believe this to the degree that we put it everywhere in our schools from the student brochures to posters on the wall. We consider this to be one of our greatest value propositions to our employees AND to our customers. We look to take it to a point where we know our competitors either cannot or will not follow. By doing so we have the opportunity to create a rewarding environment filled with great, motivated people that create success around them almost naturally. They care because they are cared about, and to a degree nurtured and cared for.
The legacy I inherited when I opened my doors in this industry was one of deep mistrust of employers. For many years in this industry there has been a persistent trail of bitter, angry, often time, legitimately disappointed employees and thus customers is a cycle that seems at times unbreakable.
In my humble opinion, unless the current range of large schools figure this out they are destined to struggle further and fail their employees and thus their customers. You cannot build a great service teaching business without FIRST having your employees totally on board and excited about what they are doing, together with the company that they are doing it for. The ones that do not will go the way of old NOVA.© Japan Today