Jinji Ido, the Generalist Approach

To generalize or to specialize? This is one of the age old questions of career planning and personnel development, with strong advocates on both sides. Where does Japan tend to lean? Here, the generalist approach is typically favored, and there is a Japanese expression ‘Jinji Ido’ (personnel reshuffling) that’s common practice, especially in larger firms.

Jinji Ido is the practice of rotating positions, usually from as short as two, to as long as five years. These can be quite drastic, for example shifting from frontline sales into human resource management, then into product management and so on. They can also include sudden moves to different cities, countries or rotations into subsidiary or joint-venture companies. Often, the employee has little say in the direction of their next rotation, and is not aware of what the upcoming move will be until a couple of months or even weeks before their new assignment. On top of this, the rotation schedule follows the HR department workflow rather than project schedules, hence rotations happen en masse at one time in the year, which leads to personnel changes across key positions in projects.

The logic behind this practice is deeply rooted in Japanese corporate and employment culture and linked to the practice of lifetime employment. By having employees become exposed to different functions and sections within the company, they can better understand each moving piece, communicate cross-functionally. And when moved up into leadership roles, have a more rounded view of the business and respect for differences.

For prospective employers looking to hire Japanese talent, this system naturally presents both advantages and disadvantages. Below, I’ll share a few of both, as well as some tips on what to look for when hiring a generalized Japanese professional.


Broad skill sets: This system tends to create well-rounded professionals who can understand and cover multiple key areas of business, and also communicate more effectively with members of other departments.

Proven adaptability: Due to the sudden and often unpredictable nature of these rotations, as well as the expectation to slot into a position that was just occupied by someone who knew what they were doing, Japanese professionals tend to learn and adapt quickly to new situations.

Project management and flexible leadership: As opposed to specialists who have worked their way up the corporate ladder, the well rotated Japanese leader will find themselves in a position where they can manage a department or organization that consists of diverse functions, personalities and needs. This has advantages both in project management and leading complex organizations.


Lack of real expertise: If mastery takes 10,000 hours, then this system certainly stops mastery in its tracks! For roles requiring a high level of expertise, often in the engineering area for example, this generalization is a clear detriment to finding the levels found in other markets.

Lower value roles: Some positions, such as those connected to corporate strategy, business planning etc, are ideal for those who will remain in the company forever since they are exposed to the inner workings of the organization, and develop important political connections. On the flipside, these roles take people away from the frontline of the business, therefore time in such roles is of little value outside of that particular organization. On top of this, Japanese companies fire low performers much less than Western firms. Rather, they tend to shuffle people into sideline positions where they have a nice title, are kept busy but don’t lead anything of real consequence.

Lack of ownership over one’s career: A generalization to be sure, however someone who accepts every rotation without taking control of their own career direction, without pushing for a role they want internally, or putting themselves on the market, will likely lack the direction, ownership and ambition that many prospective employers are looking for.

Well rounded stud or glorified paper pusher?

At its best, Jinji Ido will provide you with a fast-tracked, well-rounded, adaptable superstar. At its worst, the result will be years of various busy work without any real depth of expertise or track record of complete projects. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

Look for upward progression: Though this is more difficult than if the professional in question had stayed in a single function, career progression is detectable. Look for overseas transfers, roles in charge of key projects, exposure to team leadership early in the career, or a shift to corporate strategy / President’s office around mid-30s. These are all signs that the firm sees potential in the employee and is continuing to invest.

Core career theme or all over the place: A future business leader may have a core theme of commercial management with rotations into business development, financing, project management but coming back into larger, more complex commercial roles. This pattern of building complementary skill sets and increasing project complexity and size shows a winner on the way up. On the other hand, as Japanese companies find it hard to fire people, they will shuffle low performers around low impact, often highly unrelated positions. These positions will not allow for skill stacking or scaling up into bigger projects.

Return to the mothership or one way ticket to the outer territories: Rotations to subsidiary or joint-venture companies are not uncommon. When the move is into a position of authority, and that person is rotated back into the parent company in a few years, you know there is potential. A sideways move into a subsidiary on the other hand is in reality a move down. Likewise, not rotating back into the parent company, or gaining fast promotion in the subsidiary can be a red flag.

Case study #1 – The turn-around leader

A couple of years ago, we were retained by a global OEM in the renewable energy space to replace their General Manager. The previous two GMs had come from a pure sales background, very numbers driven, clear, ambitious and did well on the sales side. This firm, however, was only about 25% sales professionals, the other 75% consisting of service, logistics, engineering and others. These functions were chronically underperforming, had high staff turnover and low morale, leading to poor project implementation and client dissatisfaction, which hurt the bottom line.

APAC leadership recognised this and tasked us with finding a well-balanced leader who could bring the company together as a team. The gentleman who we identified and secured had worked with two large Japanese firms, had a core background in sales and new business development. However, he had a stint in production, as well as service and order fulfillment. He had also been expatriated overseas for a few years, allowing him to communicate with clarity and authority back to regional and HQ stakeholders.

In his first year in office, topline grew for the first time in years, employee turnover slowed 80%, and employee satisfaction surveys increased dramatically.

Case study #2 – Offshore wind engineers

Round 2 offshore wind results have just dropped. As expected, after the revision of the rules, there are a number of winners. That means multiple companies will need people to execute on these projects. We often field requests for fully bilingual structural engineers with 10+ years of experience in the offshore wind industry, or project controllers with 10+ years of experience in cost and schedule management for increasingly complex offshore projects. Unfortunately, these rare beasts do not yet exist in the nascent Japanese market.

The question then is, do you expatriate or hire global talent who can move into the role quickly, or hire the young, high-potential Japanese generalist and invest in their development? That is a topic for another article. However, considering that just about every developer, OEM and EPC in the market are stretched already, I feel you may guess which way I lean on this topic 😉

Andrew Statter is Partner and Head of Titan GreenTech, a Tokyo-based  human capital and executive search firm with a focus on renewable energy and clean technology markets. Titan supports global companies with Japan market entry, as well as scale-up and key hiring.

This article originally appeared in a Japan NRG Weekly report. Japan NRG is a one-stop platform that delivers both intelligence and analysis on energy and electricity markets in Japan.


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