Profile #5: James Ryland, Head of HR at Wellington Management

Paul: James Ryland and I met at 8:25 am on Monday, November 15th, 1999. I remember the date and time well as it was my first day of work in Japan (James had joined the same company a week earlier). We had arrived for an 8:30 am sales-team meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting had been cancelled, no-one had thought to tell the new boys, and the office was empty and locked. We stood outside the office in the freezing cold for quite a while until someone with a key turned up and let us in.

Despite the frosty start, or maybe because of it, we’ve become firm friends over the years. James is now the Head of Human Resources for Japan at Wellington Management, a Boston-based investment management company.

Hi James. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

James: Hi, I’m James.  I’m from the UK- I’m a ‘Yellow Belly’ from Lincolnshire. [Editor’s note: yellowbelly is the nickname for someone from Lincoln. He doesn’t actually have a yellow belly. At least, I hope not.]

I studied History and Archaeology in Winchester, and around that time Japan was very vogue and cool with manga, Muji and Sapporo Beer being very popular. My college, King Alfred’s (now the University of Winchester) had a connection with Japan, so there were a load of Japanese students there at the time. This kind of sparked an interest in Japan and it seemed like a good idea to take a year out after my studies to visit. The initial plan was I would stay for one year, with the idea I would learn Japanese and then go to a master’s degree course after I completed my level 2 Japanese proficiency test. 

I worked first at Nova in Tokyo, then at a small English school mostly for children. It was better teaching children than adults as they were open to learning and didn’t think they knew everything already. I also had enough time to spend learning the 3000 kanji I needed to pass the proficiency test and be eligible to apply for my master’s course.

After I finished my master’s degree, I wasn’t sure what was the best thing to do, either find a job in the UK or go back to Japan. Most jobs in London looked pretty dead end, so if I wanted to use my skills, back to Japan was probably best. I put my resume up on what was probably the first online job board in Japan, the American Chamber of Commerce site. I remember they charged me 1000 yen for the privilege. Lucky enough it was worth it. Mark Smith, now of Skillhouse fame, but then at Panache (an IT staffing & services company), sent me an email offering me an interview. I started as a personnel coordinator at Panache, which was mostly looking after temporary contract staff, 60% of whom were non-Japanese, with their various day-to-day needs, such as visa renewals and other general HR-related areas. I did this for around 3 years and then left to take an HR role at a telecom company. I then ended up being a recruiter at Microsoft for around 3 years. Following that, I made the break into the Finance industry, working in HR at Barclays Global Investors, BlackRock and then AIG.

Tell me about your current role.

I’m currently working as Head of Human Resources for Wellington Management. We’re probably one of the largest active asset managers in the world by AUM (assets under management). We have around 90 people in our Japan office. It’s my first time to be a head of HR in my career.

What does your typical working day look like?

As we’re now working from home, I glide out of my pyjamas to my desk around 7:30 am. I find I get most of my constructive or creative work done from 7:30 am to 9 am as the rest of the day is mainly taken up meeting people in the Japan office or across APAC. I’m in a regular conference with my colleagues in Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as in Boston.

You have interviewed hundreds of people so far in your career, including many IT people. What advice would you give to job hunting engineers in the Tokyo market about resumes and interviews?

Resume: Keep it simple but with enough detail about what you have done in bullet points. No novels. In interviews, be yourself and give honest answers. Try to go into detail as far as possible as to your exact contributions to something, and how you helped communication.

Also, be honest about those temp, contract assignments you have done as even if you think not important they may be relevant, and will be needed for background checks etc.

In interviews, I try to focus on competencies, and I think you will find most firms will nowadays. You should have a clear idea of how your actual contributions reflect in these competencies and be able to give real examples of things you have done in detail. Be ready for lots of why, what, when, where questions and be able to clarify what you learned from an experience.

Of course, how you look doesn’t matter, but your overall demeanour in an interview does- are you punctual, interested, passionate about what you do- all of these will improve your chances of being successful.

What are some of your goals for the future?

I’d really like to take Wellington to the next level and achieve the kind of things I saw happen when I was Barclays or Blackrock, where we saw serious AUM growth. I think the key to this is ensuring we have the best work environment in the industry and are committed to true diversity,  gender, culture and colour.

Quickfire questions.

– most important advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time to your arrival in Japan?

Study more, stop drinking too many beers on Friday and get out of Tokyo more. 

– how do you learn new skills?

I like to read a new HR book every month and try to incorporate what I learn into a new scheme or project at work.

Can you give us an example?

For example, I love the book Multipliers, which explains how management styles can stop people reaching their potential- they key thing is letting people get on with what they are good at and not micromanaging them- seems obvious but actually, we are probably all guilty of it. It’s been interesting to introduce Japanese managers to the ideas and see if they can implement them.

– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

I’m reading the Genius of Opposites: How Introverts and Extroverts Achieve Extraordinary Results Together [Amazon US / Amazon JP] – how to make introverts and extroverts work together on the professional front. On the personal side, I like sci-fi and am trying to read Asimov’s Foundation  [Amazon US / Amazon JP], before the TV series comes out. For gaming, I’m a Half-Life nerd, and thinking about how I can get a virtual reality headset and play Half-Life Alyx without my family freaking out.

– your favourite place to visit in Japan?

I like to find surprising places that are not far away from Tokyo. I recently visited Yatsugatake for the first time and was surprised that this kind of place was only a 2 hour drive away from Tokyo. I’d say Hokkaido was one of my favourites as well for nice weather and European landscapes.

– what’s the best thing you’ve ever spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

A working visa and re-entry permit.

Finally, and most importantly, Star Wars or Star Trek, and why?

Definitely Star Trek. Star Wars has become a mixed-up vehicle for Disney’s consumerism in recent years. That said, The Expanse is probably better than both of them, considering Star Trek’s lack of direction in recent incarnations.

Well, there you go. Get a Netflix account and watch The Expanse. It really is quite good indeed.

If you’re interested in contacting James, you can reach him via LinkedIn here.

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