Leadership and Opportunities: What Japan’s Pharma Future Needs

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As my meeting with the HR Director at a leading American pharma company in Japan drew to a close, he asked if I thought that young Japanese managers would be interested in international assignments. He explained that he had brought this matter up with Headquarters a number of times, and the general consensus was that young Japanese people would only be interested in going to Europe or the United States of America.

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He acquainted me with the generally held belief by HQ that the Japanese live in a “Sakoku Paradise” (The sakoku policy was the closed door policy adopted by the historical Tokugawa shogunate in handling their relationship with foreign countries). He went on to clarify that there is a widely held belief that Japan’s predominately monocultural society does not lend itself to dynamic, globally minded business men and women, but instead produces what some have called herbivores, metrosexuals who are more concerned with looks than career. According to HQ, the image of Japanese women was just as damning, suggesting that most were “parasite singles” (parasaitoshinguru), single people who live with their parents until their early thirties in order to enjoy a carefree and comfortable life.

I was a little taken aback by the character assassination of the younger generation of pharma professionals. I responded that my experience supported a contrarian view; the most common question I am asked by the younger demographic concerns how they can get access to international opportunities.

The HR Director agreed with my view, and we thought that we’d put our theory to the test. We asked a group of 100 pharmaceutical professionals aged between 27 and 35 to complete a short survey.

In the survey, our group was asked whether their company offered them a clear career path over the next five years. Alarmingly, 77% said that there was no such guidance.

When asked whether they would be interested in leaving their current company and joining another pharma company if it offered them a one-year International Training Program, 81% responded positively.

When asked where they would be willing to live, 40% said that they would be interested in opportunities in China, nearly 30% said Vietnam was attractive, one quarter (25%) indicated that Brazil and Russia would provide valuable opportunities, and nearly 20% said that they would live in India for career advancement. A large majority at 70% said Singapore would be ideal. One responder commented that “the US FDA will remain the most powerful agency in the world: the benefit of training in other countries is not clear.”

We asked our group what factors they took into consideration when thinking about their careers. One responder listed “What I can learn as business skills/knowledge from company assets”; “Whom I can work/connect with as colleagues and/or customers”; and “How I can contribute to society.” Nearly 100% said that career advancement was at the forefront of their minds, which rings alarm bells when we consider that most felt that they did not have a definite career plan. Salary was a key factor to 77%, while location was most important to 66% and the company’s product pipeline resonated with 40% of the group. Having a mentor was seen as an important factor to 22% of the group. One responder wanted a career that would empower him to ascend to office in Japan.

The results of our short survey show young employees at pharmaceutical companies in Japan are crying out for leadership and opportunities. This may indicate a great opening for a forward-thinking company to invest in the next generation of go-getters. Perhaps the bias of the senior members of HQ is a reflection of themselves rather than a true description of the under-35 demographic in Japan. It appears that in some companies, HQ may be out of step with the hearts and minds of the next generation of Japanese executives. I know of at least one Japanese executive who resigned in part due to the lack of commitment shown by his foreign boss with regards to training and career development of the up and coming stars in Japan. Where there is discourse within a labor market, therein lies a great opportunity. As Stephen R. Covey (author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”) explains, “An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success.”

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