Profile #7: Andrew Bishop – APAC Head of Human Resources and Chief of Staff

Paul: I met Andrew Bishop way back in 2000 when we worked together in the IT recruiting team at PANACHE, a Tokyo-based technology, staffing and services company. We’ve been friends ever since. Andrew is currently the APAC Head of Human Resources and Chief of Staff for Asian markets at a global life and health reinsurance company.

Andrew talks to me about building his career in human resources after coming to Japan as a backpacker in the late 90s, working in Hong Kong, the value of education, and his recent return to Tokyo.

Hi Andrew. Thanks for joining me. Please tell us a little about your background.

Andrew: Really nice to see you again, Paul. I grew up in Calgary, western Canada, and decided to leave Canada in 1996 to backpack and see the world. I got on a plane and headed to New Zealand and started my journey there (fabulous country). I then made my way to Australia for a year and a half, working odd jobs and seeing the beauty of the land down under, before I travelled throughout Southeast Asia. I came to Japan in 1998 with the plan of spending up to a month seeing the country because I figured that was how far the money I had would get me. I left Japan in 2015 to go to Hong Kong on a long term work assignment and have just returned to Japan now for the start of 2021.

I still feel that I’m on this long backpacking journey even today. Along the way, I have worked hard and hot days on Australian farms, front desk in a hotel, and held some amazing corporate roles in multinational companies in Japan, all while finishing an MBA and starting a family. I feel very fortunate for the many life learning experiences I have encountered along this amazing journey, an amazing family, good health and developing great friendships all over the world. 

Tell us some more about your backpacking experience and how that led to Tokyo.

After having left Canada, I spent a year and a half working odd jobs all over Australia on the Canada / Australia working holiday program. I spent time working on farms, picking fruit (don’t recommend), on a boat in the beautiful Whitsunday Islands, and sightseeing all over the country, such a great place. I took a detour with some friends and travelled all through Indonesia and parts of Southeast Asia to Bangkok. By the time I reached Bangkok, I was down to my last $200 dollars and said goodbye to my friends and headed back to Australia to find work. This time I decided to go to Perth, Western Australia. I found myself living in a backpacker house that happened to be full of Japanese who were all on working holiday visas. I quickly made friends with a number of them who are still good friends to this day. 

Over time, my work visa expired, so I went back to Canada for a while and decided to apply for the Canada / Japan working holiday visa program. I came to Japan in 1998.

How did you start your career in Japan? Do you think your experience traveling helped you settle in here?

I quickly found a job teaching English because I needed some cash and almost as quickly quit because it was not right for me. I found another job doing organizational development training work that had me onsite at some of the biggest Japanese and foreign multinational corporations and making a lot more money than I could ever have made back home in Canada or picking fruit in Australia. It was an easy decision to stay in Japan for a while and see what I could make of it all. Also, I found a fabulous group of friends playing inline hockey every week in Gaienmae and that is how it all started.

If I may digress, perhaps this was all serendipitous because my grandparents (British) lived in Japan between 1922 – 39 and my father was born here. Obviously, they had to leave during the war, but they returned in 1955. So in many ways, it feels very natural to live in Japan.

That’s an interesting link between Japan and your past. What were your grandparents doing here?

My grandfather was with an oil company and my great-uncle was with a bank. They lived in both Kobe and Yokohama. During the war, as they were fluent in Japanese, they spent time with British military intelligence in various postings, including time in Washington D.C.

How did your original job in organizational training lead to your career in human resources management? How has that career progressed over the years?

After almost two full years in Tokyo, this led me into a new job in recruitment and human resources working at PANACHE (where I met Paul Roberts). I spent four years there doing candidate screening, recruitment and managing a client account as personnel manager. I learned a great deal about IT, outsourcing, and Japanese temporary staffing law in particular, as the company had a major outsourcing arrangement with a large German banking client.

In 2004, I decided to take up a role in human resources with a US-based life insurance company, which quickly got me recruited into a much bigger role in the next building over as human resources leader for the investment management arm of a large American asset management company, eventually supporting all HR facets across Japan and Korea. I loved working there and really learned a lot, having the opportunity to work with some incredibly smart fund managers and equity analysts. It was really life-changing from a work experience perspective – so eye-opening and the learning opportunity was incredible. Then the Lehman Shock came and my main role was focused on downsizing the organization and shifting roles out of Japan. This was not fun and a very emotionally draining time at work for me. Sometimes the hardest roles are the roles you learn the most about yourself. At the end of 2009, it was also time for me to say goodbye to the firm.

As the spring of 2010 came, so did a new career and education fortunes. I became the Japan Head of Human Resources for my current employer, an American life and health reinsurance company. At the same time, I was flying back and forth to Hong Kong (satellite campus) and Canada (main campus) to complete an MBA at Canada’s top business school. I loved returning to studying – business school was one of the best decisions I had ever made. I learned so much, met so many great people doing so many unique things from so many different fields and had a lot of fun. This company I had just joined was also going through a major transition and so it was a nice fit at the time with my prior experience. 

By 2011, my Japan boss was promoted to run our international division and he encouraged me to apply for a role as Head of Asia Pacific human resources. Probably one of the best bosses I have ever had, very smart and personable and such a positive example for me (not to take away anything from my current bosses who are also pretty amazing as well). The role was all about building a dynamic organizational culture for a business that was rapidly expanding across the Asia region.

This led to you spending the past five years in Hong Kong. Tell us about that. The city has been through a lot during the time you lived there.

In 2015, the company asked me to run regional HR from Hong Kong and to take up the Chief of Staff role to the regional EVP, spending 50% of my time in each role. I spent a great deal of time on planes, hotels and working in all corners of the planet with wonderful colleagues over the past ten years. For example, I spent my 40th birthday at the Taj Mahal because we were holding a conference there, and will never forget it. This role continues to be a fabulous adventure and an incredible lens on the human condition at work, employee behaviour and understanding cross-cultural similarities and differences. 

Life in Hong Kong was very good in the first few years, particularly, it just has such a different business buzz to Tokyo, being the gateway to China. It felt in some ways like living in Tokyo in the late 90s.  The job was all about building the best place to work and in 2017, we were named best employer in the industry. All that hard work and investment was really paying off. 

Unfortunately, the demonstrations and riots of 2019 followed by the Covid lockdowns and the introduction of the Hong Kong national security law have certainly taken a toll on the mojo of the city, but I have no doubt that it will come back over time. Hong Kongers are very resilient and hardworking people.  

I have been really very fortunate and have had so many amazing jobs over the past twenty-odd years, and I am also very happy to return to Tokyo.

What are you looking forward to eating, seeing or doing now that you’re back in Japan?

Japan is such a nice place to live, everything works. I’m excited to do some traveling and skiing this winter. My youngest son has never seen snow. 

You’ve gained a lot of experience in recruitment in Japan and across Asia Pacific, both as a recruiter and in your in-house HR roles. How does recruitment differ across the countries you’ve experienced? We often hear that doing business in Japan is unique across many facets, including recruitment. What do you think about that?

In short, everywhere is unique and everywhere has its merits and challenges. Japan has a real scarcity of human resources with specialized skill sets, minimal salary inflation, very high income tax, an ageing population that doesn’t move companies that easily. Across the rest of the region, the challenge is the opposite, younger skilled workforces, increasingly high salaries, lower income tax with a rapidly increasing cost of living which in turn makes employees very aggressive on salary and shorter employment retention. The other major difference is that the mindset in the rest of Asia is that of a hungry Tiger, aggressive in growth both at the macroeconomic level and the individual career level.  One commonality across all the geographies these days is that so many organizations are seeking to diversify their leadership pipelines. As you may have noticed in Japan with the big push by the Abe government administration over the last few years. A great deal of work still needs to be done in this space. 

Please tell us a little about your current role?

I’m Senior Vice President – Human Resources, Asia Pacific Markets & Chief of Staff – Asian Markets for a global life and health reinsurance company.

As Chief of Staff, I lead special programs and project initiatives on behalf of the Regional EVP including, most recently, Corporate Social Responsibility efforts across Asia. 

I have also led Asia Pacific HR strategy and operations across all markets for the last ten years.

Subject expertise includes organizational design, corporate restructuring, change management, employee relations investigations, compensation and reward metrics, HR operations, and M&A due diligence and integration.

What does your typical working day look like?

These days, I get up around 6 a.m., eat, and get my two boys ready for school. I walk the elder boy to the bus stop and then go for a 40-minute run. I come home and start work for the day, which can be quite long. I sit in front of my laptop on Zoom and Teams until lunch and then keep working. I take a 10-minute break to pick up my son in the afternoon and keep working until dinner. I then take a break until 21:00 before logging on again for calls in the evening with headquarters in the US.

Before Covid, I was typically on a Cathay Pacific plane flying inter-region, the U.S. or India on global and regional projects almost every week. The rule at home was that I could leave on Monday morning, but had to be home no later than 05:00 Saturday to look after the kids. In many ways, I do miss the travel, meeting people all over the world face to face, as well as the great food in each country. Life is so different now and I look forward to once again meeting with colleagues in person when we can.

What are some of your dreams or goals for the future?

  • Have fun with the family every day. Raising kids is such an incredible experience, so fun! 
  • Start or buy into new business ventures, probably in Organizational Consulting, FinTech or something to do with the very large elder-care needs market that has a technology angle and is scalable. Japan is full of opportunity if you can find the right niche play and I’m a big believer in entrepreneurial small business. 
  • Stay humble, keep traveling, keep learning, keep healthy and play sport until the body gives out, keep having fun!

Quickfire questions

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

Read twice as much as I did, eat healthier, turn off the noise (TV) and also buy a lot of stock in FAANG companies.

– how do you learn new skills?

  • Talking to our young employees, things have changed, understanding the IT and social media skills needed today to get work done. Big companies are becoming as much about the tech as they are about the product they create and distribute. It’s about speed to market and customer engagement. 
  • I read a lot, the one thing all the plane time used to give me is quite focused time to read.
  • I get invited to a lot of corporate training, so I take advantage of what I can in that space.
  • Put yourself into different and uncomfortable situations, you will learn to sink or swim. For example, I coached kids rugby in Hong Kong. I did not grow up playing it, but when you have the opportunity to learn new things from different people, jump in and give it a try. I now love the game and am desperate to play in Tokyo and had so much fun coaching it.
  • Two skills that I think are quite underrated in general from a business competency perspective are communication and the ability to focus for long periods of time. I would also add that everyone should know some basic accounting. Accounting is the language of business. 

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

– your favourite place to visit in Japan?

  • Driving down to the Izu Peninsula and spending a weekend. Also taking in the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori during August – so fun and a must-do! Japan has so much to offer.

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

  • Running shoes. I like to run and always look at the different shoes people are wearing. I’m sure you were looking for a more exciting response….

Good answer. Sounds like you need them to keep up with your kids! Thanks for joining me and telling us a little of your story.

You can find Andrew on LinkedIn here.

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