Recently Chris Moloney from Asia Options caught up with Jason Hayes, Partner at PwC’s Australia’s Asia Practice, to chat about his interests and experiences in Japan and give advice about approaching a career in Asia. Jason is currently the leader of PwC’s Asia Pacific Japan practice (ex Japan) covering PwC’s deals, assurance, taxation and consulting service offerings. Jason recently returned from Tokyo, Japan, as part of his second long-term secondment with PwC Japan. He is also an active member of the Australia Japan Business Cooperation Committee (AJBCC) and is a regular speaker at Asialink’s Leaders program.
Jason we have caught up a few times and each time your experience, interest and knowledge of Japan and Asia has impressed me. What sparked your interest in Japan and Asia more broadly?
Well I actually started studying Japanese in year 9 with no previous Japanese language exposure or understanding of Japan or Asia. Though, as soon as I started, I literally fell in love with the language. My love for the language then quickly evolved into interest in the country, culture, art, and history. When I look back at why I studied, I literally think it was by sheer chance that I studied it and really enjoyed it. Once my interest in Japan grew, I quickly became more interested in Asia more generally; I started to read and learn about other Asian countries, their languages, cultures and histories. It quickly became apparent that Asia was not this monolithic region but a very diverse set of cultures, histories and languages. And I was literally hooked.
During school I had no real appreciation about how developed or undeveloped the various countries were, it was all about the language, people and the culture as opposed to the economic might. It was the passion that drove me – I did not do it for pragmatic reasons. So with this interest, I actually completed Japanese at HSC and did well enough. This eventually drove me to study a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Japanese at Macquarie University. At that point in time, I wanted to become a Japanese tour guide in Sydney to be perfectly honest (followed by laughs). That’s where I thought studying the language would honestly take me. After my first year of university, however, I realised I was also interested in commerce and the economy so I decided to combine Japanese with a Bachelor of Economics. Little did I know that my future would be decided quite quickly after beginning the double degree, in an area very unrelated to tour guiding.
So how did your opportunity at PwC come about?
It was really fortuitous actually. I was still completing my bachelor’s degree when a friend of mine, who worked at PwC, introduced me by chance to a PwC Partner of the Japan Desk. I was literally in a t-shirt and board-shorts and he was just blown away by the fact that I was studying Japanese and economics. This partner introduced me to the idea of combining the two disciplines to join PwC as an accountant focussed on Japanese clients. He literally offered me a job on the spot, exclaiming, ‘Jason you are unique in that you are studying Japanese and economic, come join us!’
So I was lucky enough to work at a very prestigious firm in an area that I was passionate about and undertake studies that I also loved as well. And once I finished university, I worked with PwC in the audit practice focussed on Japanese clients. I worked with really prominent companies like Nippon Steel, Konica and Sanyo, etc, which was really exciting.
And how long after beginning with PwC did you move to Japan?
Too long (followed by laughs)! 13 years after joining the firm I was finally offered an opportunity to go work in the Tokyo office. In Tokyo, I was given a portfolio of audit clients including Walt Disney, IBM and other prominent international companies, which was an excellent experience. And what started as a two-year secondment actually ended up as an 8 year one – to my and my family’s delight! During those 8 years, my focus shifted from international companies to local Japanese ones including Canon, Kirin, and the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT).
What was it like living in Japan for 8 years with PwC? Were there any cultural readjustments needed to successfully forge a career in Japan?
Immediately I fell in love with the people and the culture. It quickly became apparent how warm, loyal, respectful, considerate and polite the locals were which quickly equated to a lot of new friendships – all of which further fuelled my love affair with Japan. However, for the first 6 months working at PwC in Japan, I really struggled to be effective; I literally wasn’t able to deliver the same results that I experienced in Australia or work well with the Japanese teams. My ineffectiveness was because I approached working in Japan as if it was identical as working in Australia. Although I thought I understood the culture, I really didn’t. I hadn’t appreciated the cultural differences that needed to be properly understood and respected when working in Japan. So, once I got clear messages from some close Japanese workmates, I realised that it was very important that I respected the Japanese culture. This led me to learn more about the Japanese culture in a way that allowed me to be much more effective in Japan. A few examples were to avoid being simply too direct in conversation with a Japanese person and learning that “silence is gold” as opposed to my usual demeanour of wanting to finish everyone’s sentences. And in fact, learning the Japanese culture was much more interesting than being an audit partner at PwC or being able to speak the language. The culture became the number one priority for me to master, which in turn ultimately made me very successful in my job.
Is language everything or can you be successful in Asia without it? And what makes Japan so special?
If you are going to be successful in Asia, you must understand the culture. Now whilst it is always important in any culture to learn the pleasantries as this shows respect, I always say to people that you don’t have to learn the language fluently to be successful. To be successful you must understand the culture: culture first, language second. Now of course language helps reinforce certain aspects of the culture but you can understand the language without understanding the culture. For instance, even though I had some solid grounding in the language and had worked with Japanese clients in Australia over 13 years, I really hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface in regards to the culture until I actually lived and worked in Japan. The language grounding of course helps but you really need to actively immerse yourself into the culture to be successful. Although, it should be said, that I am not advocating for you to forget about language or throw away your Japanese text book. Language is still very important! I just feel that the importance of understanding the culture is something we sometimes neglect, despite it being the most fundamental in my experience for success.
To understand why Japan is so special ultimately hinges on the culture. How can a country so small without natural resources become the second largest economy in the world? It is because everyone moves in the same direction. Japan has a social cohesion that is so incredibly strong. It allows them to achieve really special things! One clear example of this is Japan’s amazingly quick recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Japanese people have an ability to work together as one which I have not seen anywhere else in the world. It is quite remarkable!
Do you think that Japan will, and should, remain an important economic and strategic partner for Australia now and into the future?
Absolutely! Our future relies on the trade and investment flows from and to Japan. Japan is the largest Asian investor into Australia, only 3rd behind US and UK. And it is our 2nd largest trading partner behind China. Japanese investment builds industries in Australia; for instance, Japanese investment dollars helped build the iron ore industry in Australia, which has ultimately been the bedrock of Australia’s economic development. And I think this largely stems from the fact that Australia and Japan have a very complementary relationship: Australia is resource rich and Japan is capital rich. And more importantly, we are able to do things together in 3rd markets like Southeast Asia, which is strategically important for both economies. So I think Australia will continue to be strong in virtue of its incredibly strong relationship with Japan.
Jason you have had an amazing career in Asia, what kind of advice can you give to young Australians about approaching a career in Asia?
Asia is the next frontier for Australia. And I think Australians that have an interest in Asia can achieve an incredibly rewarding and successful career. Coupling an Asian language with areas like marketing, education and engineering, will automatically give you a competitive advantage. You will be able to do things in Asia that others will struggle. But remember, language is only one element, culture is critical for success in the region. I can think of a number of successful people, who are ultimately successful because of their understanding of the culture(s). For instance, the Asia Pacific CEO of Lenovo is Australian; the CEO of BMW Japan is Australian; the CEO of American Express Japan is Australian; and the CEO of Nike Japan is also Australian. They are running very big businesses and brands in huge markets in Asia and to me that is incredible and ultimately to do with their understanding of the target market, which is learnt through culture. One thing that I always point out to the universities in Australia is that yes it is great to get a degree but don’t just think that your career is in Australia but think that your career could be in Asia, where there are very vast growing Asian markets. My advice, take that leap and you will be very well rewarded both personally and professionally!
What about opportunities to use your Asian language skills and knowledge in Australia? In your experience, are these skills highly sought after?
Yes, absolutely. To me it is incredible that people aren’t saying to prospective employees that I have an Asian language. I am not sure whether people are using it as a trump card but I really don’t understand it. In a market like Australia where it is incredibly competitive to get high paying jobs, to me that is the differentiator. If you have an Asian language skill, even if you’re not fluent, you’re already ahead of your peers. This is especially true when the country is desperately trying to move its Asian aspirations forward and both China and Japan continue to invest heavily in Australia. So yes, there definitely are great benefits for you having these languages and knowledge in Australia. Just look at my example – the budding young Japanese language enthusiast who had dreams to be a Japanese tour guide but became a partner at one of the biggest professional services firms in the world!
*This written extract is based around an informal interview with Jason Hayes. Editing and writing was completed by Chris Moloney.
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