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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Coaching helps women avail of new opportunities

Special to The Japan Times

Ritsuko Hatano, an energetic sales manager, has steadily climbed the career ladder after she graduated from university a decade ago.

"My first job after university was in a typical Japanese company where women employees wore uniforms and were expected to wash the ashtrays as part of their work schedule. I quit after four years because I realized I was at a dead-end," she laughs.

For the next few years, Hatano, who speaks flawless English and was brought up in Hong Kong, pursued a series of interesting jobs until she landed at Wall Street Associates, a Japanese company started by a British national, that specializes in recruitment.

As the company grew in size, Hatano was thrust into a manager's position a year ago and now, she says, she faces the real challenge. "As a Japanese woman, being in a position of management is a unique and not so comfortable experience," observes Hatano, explaining that most female workers in traditional corporate culture have been nurtured to be stronger followers rather than leaders.

"Making quick decisions, guiding and leading younger staff and being able to build a team that works efficiently are necessary leadership qualities that are still new to women," she points out.

This is where the role of coaching, a concept, still relatively new in Japan, has begun to gain the spotlight, especially among ambitious Japanese women.

Hatano, who finds the lack of role models for career women a major problem, believes coaching can the answer. Coaching assists individuals to develop a heightened understanding of leadership by taking participants through a series of training sessions and workshops aimed to boost self-confidence and flush out those untapped communication and analytical skills.

The ultimate result is equipping the employee with leadership qualities that make him or her invaluable to the company.

Elizabeth Handover, Japan representative of Insights Intrapersona Consultants, is a leading expert in the coaching field. Her method, the Insights Discovery System, offers a program that takes the individual through a psychological questionnaire designed to recognize personal strengths and weakness. The next step is to be able to identify the same qualities in a team followed by learning to combine the different styles of each team member.

The end result is highly efficient managers who can develop strategies that will push the team ahead rather than get bogged down by clashes.

According to Handover, Insights has carved itself a niche in Japan given its special emphasis on understanding the diverse personalities in the team. Commonly, aggressive individualism is frowned upon in the corporate environment, where consensus is the golden rule. Thus, as Insights avoids labeling a person "difficult," but rather calls for ways to adapt and connect, it strikes a chord with Japanese management.

At a recent seminar, Handover conducted an Insights workshop that divided the female participants into four personality groups based on colors.

Hatano, sitting in the front row with 14 of her colleagues, decided she belonged to the Green section, which according to Insights, is composed of quiet and supportive workers whose main traits make them the "glue" in the team. At the end of the session, Hatano says she realized why she had found it so difficult to deal with a particular female member of her team in the office.

"I learned that the staff member making my life miserable was a Red, which symbolizes strong individualism in contrast to the Green. I decided to pull up my Red side to be able to deal with her more efficiently," she said.

The other two colors are Blue, for complex personality, and Yellow, representing energetic employees.

Coaching experts point out the timing could not be better for training sessions as Japan, facing a fall in birth rates and a resulting looming labor crunch, turns its attention to expanding its female workforce.

Handover says Japanese women must seize the moment. "There is no doubt that we will soon see a situation were Japanese women can chose what kind of company they work in, such as those with conditions giving women benefits like equal promotion opportunities, child rearing subsidies or personalized training.

"Coaching can prepare women now to consciously develop their talents and be prepared to grab those upcoming chances," she said.

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