I recently read a New York Times article titled “Young and Global Need Not Apply in Japan.” The article highlighted the struggle Japanese, who have studied abroad, are having with landing jobs within Japanese companies upon returning to Japan. Although these “returnees” are eager to gain experience in a Japanese company, such companies are not sure what to do with this new breed of “global” talent. They simply no longer fit the mold of a typical Japanese new hire.

Being “Over-spec”

Japanese recruiters refer to such candidates as being ‘over-spec,’ – too elite to fit in, too eager to get ahead, too opinionated, too assertive, too inquisitive, simply put, too different. One Japanese graduate of Yale apparently violated many unwritten rules as an intern in a Japanese advertising agency because he felt the urge to speak up and challenge ideas. This behavior resulted in him being excluded from meetings and assigned dead-end tasks.

While many Japanese have graduated with degrees from some of the top universities in the world, stories such as this are forcing them to ‘down play’ their exposure to western ways and overseas experience for fear of being labeled over-spec. One graduate who landed a job at Panasonic said,

“I didn’t want to come across as a show-off. So I stressed how I worked hard and overcame that,” he said. “And I made sure to emphasize that I would still fit in.” (emphasis added)

What is the Personal Branding Style-Dial?

This down playing of skills, experience, and styles reminded me of a crucial component of cross-cultural personal branding. Successful personal branding fora globally-minded person requires using what I call the “Personal Branding Style-Dial” – dialing-up or dialing-down your personal brand depending on the context, situation, and people.

Imagine a dial from 1 to 10. When you are demonstrating your personal brand attributes at their fullest potential you are at a 10. Likewise, when you dial down to a 1 you are essentially reigning-in your brand attributes. In between are different degrees of how you promote your personal brand.

I use the image of a dial instead of a switch because style switching suggests you are completely ‘on’ or ‘off’. The danger here is that there is no built-in flexibility to be more or less of your brand as the situation demands. Even the meaning of the word “switch” is to change or divert from the usual. When branding yourself, you always want to be true to your brand attributes and not divert from them. The Personal Branding Style-Dial allows you to be true to your brand, but at varying degrees.

Keeping Your Brand at ‘5’

I always encourage people to keep their style-dial at a constant 5. This makes it mentally easier to turn the dial up or down. By always keeping your style-dial on 10, your fullest potential, it can be much more challenging to mentally dial down to a 2. This gap is a total of eight adjustments to tone-down your brand when needed – a rather large shift! However, by seeing your brand attributes at a constant 5, your adjustments in either direction with be easier to deal with and far less dramatic.

For example, let’s say your brand attribute is all about being an assertive self-starter. If you are meeting with your American manager for your performance review, then emphasizing your individual achievement is expected. In this case you dial up from a 5 to perhaps a 10 and really exude your brand attributes to their fullest degree.

On the other hand, if you are meeting with your Japanese customer to discuss a proposal, then dialing down your assertiveness to perhaps a 3 or 2 is necessary to maintain harmony. Your are not giving up your brand, but based on the cultural context you are simply reigning it in. Demonstrating your brand to its fullest potential in this context would likely damage the relationship.

Ultimately the dial enables you to still be authentic and communicate your value. Whether you dial up or down you are still being you, but in a way that meets the needs of the environment you are in at that time. The key is that you are neither abandoning your brand attributes nor creating a false image. You are simply adapting, adjusting, and aligning your brand to maintain successful cross-cultural relationships.

It is Not Just About You!

Personal branding has become a household term. People all around the world are embracing the power of personal branding to stand out amongst all others who offer similar skills, talents, and backgrounds.

At the same time, personal branding has received critique and negative reactions from many who say it is only about showing off, focusing attention on how great you are, and tooting your own horn. Perhaps this is the fear Japanese companies have if they hire “returnees” after their overseas education.

To truly embrace personal branding you also need to understand it is not just about you! It is more about how others perceive you and how your brand can contribute to a greater community. Knowing your brand attributes is the first step, but applying and adjusting them to the context around you is an absolute necessity to be successful globally and cross-culturally. The Personal Branding Style-Dial ensures that your brand is not ‘over-spec’ and that you can dial it accordingly.