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How to Land a Role in North Asia: Growth Hack Your Job Search During Covid-19

What will the international job market look like in 2021? Still cloudy with a chance of lockdowns. But the advice given to Asia School of Business in collaboration with MIT Sloan’s graduating MBA Class of 2021 goes like this: keep expanding your fishnet of connections, so that when Covid-19 turns and the floodgates open, opportunities will come flushing in.

That was among one of the many pearls of wisdom shared during a virtual panel organized by ASB’s Career Development Office focused around working in the North Asia region. In the hot seats were Fernando Diaz, Director of Divestment Lead Technology of Budweiser Brewing Company APAC based in Shanghai; Ryan Chan from Nissan Motor Corp’s Future Retail Strategy Team in Tokyo; and Gordon Dudley, a global HR entrepreneur and Country Manager of RDI Worldwide based in Seoul.

All three originally came from non-Asian countries, but they pursued MBAs educations in Asia and have all remained in the region ever since.

Here are my 4 key takeaways from the talk:

1️) North Asia (China, Japan and Korea) is open (but be smart about it!)

Talent who can drive innovation and transformation are in demand

“The perception that Japanese companies only hire foreign nationals if you speak the language is a myth,” said Ryan. The country is increasingly looking to hire from beyond its shores due to a lack of innovative talent and the need for economic transformation. “Japan is ripe with opportunity, even if they don’t know it themselves,” said Ryan.

Networking is crucial – cold interactions alone aren’t enough

Fernando shared that China is hard to crack for foreigners going through the traditional job application route. Instead, you should rely heavily on networking and making connections. His own journey to getting employed in Shanghai came through an introduction made by a friend.

This allowed him to plant the seed and go for several more interviews, eventually landing his current job. “In China, you need to spend a lot of time trying to build relationships and spending time with your colleagues, for instance by going to karaoke,” said Fernando.

Gordon, who set up his own recruitment consultancy in Seoul five years ago after working at Hyundai for a decade, noted that South Korea is undergoing a massive transformation to tech and service-based industries.

As the expatriate population grows in South Korea, English is also becoming more widespread on the back of a more globalized workforce. However, networking and relationships should still remain central to any job application strategy in South Korea.

“A lot of people go on LinkedIn and end up applying for 250 jobs and waste hours and hours throwing their resume into the digital vacuum, and they don’t get a single response back,” said Gordon. “If you’re a foreigner who’s not currently in South Korea, the odds of landing a job through online applications are slim to none,” he added.

It is vitally important to have some kind of relationship with recruiters in South Korea. The best practice is to create a list of target companies or jobs, and then reach out to the hiring manager via email or Linkedin messaging to ask for more information.

Don’t ignore hierarchy

Mainland Chinese society is generally hierarchical and employees often address each other by seniority. It goes without saying that there will be cultural challenges and you are also advised to learn Mandarin. However, these barriers also serve as opportunities. “It’s important for people to see you’re serious about working with them,” said Fernando.

2️) Spray and pray isn’t going to cut it

Which leads me to the next point: don’t rely on Easy Apply. “People love talking about their jobs and themselves, and the higher you climb in an organization, the more it’s part of your job to develop talent and network,” said Gordon. “So, don’t be scared to reach out to C-level people and ask them questions about what it’s like to work in the company.” Make it an opportunity to start a conversation and to learn how you can offer something of value to the company.

Quality trumps quantity

“It’s going to be much more effective to reach out to a smaller number of people and develop a dialogue with them, rather than shooting off dozens and dozens of applications,” Gordon added. But if striking up conversations with random people on the internet sounds intimidating, Gordon has the following suggestions: “take small steps, and make it a weekly habit.”

You can start by putting a weekly reminder in your calendar. For example, set aside time every Friday morning at 10am to send one e-mail to someone in your existing or targeted network. That one e-mail will lead to another and another, and it will spark a positive chain of events. And just like that, you’ve reached out to 52 people in a year.

3️) Figure out how to get people to trust you

How do you get people to trust you? According to Ryan, this is the foundational question every job seeker needs to wrestle with and have a convincing answer for. “If you’re being interviewed and someone asks you that question, can you answer in a way that makes you stand out?” said Ryan. “I’ve heard answers like: I really listen to people. I consider what they say. And I get things done. I’ve heard people say that in so many different ways. But how does that make you unique?” he adds.

And the trust question is a non-trivial one – making change happen is really about getting people to trust you. In addition, Ryan also thinks that soft skills are underrated. “You can easily test for hard skills, but it’s in later-stage interviews that the trust issue becomes paramount,” he said. The questions will quickly go from ‘are you qualified’ to ‘can I trust you’ or ‘can I see you on my team’ and ‘can you manage people.’ After all, people are the vectors of change.

4️) Covid-19 lockdowns will end… someday

Foreign hiring may be at a standstill – but don’t get disheartened. “Given the vaccine developments, things could change very quickly in the next six months,” said Fernando. Gordon agreed, saying it’s never too early to start looking at opportunities. But if physical presence and relocation isn’t an option right now, then this is the time to get creative. For instance, many internships have made remote options available.

The point is exactly this: As a job seeker, you need to keep trucking on. “These (Covid-related issues) are external factors,” said Ryan. “It’s not within your control. But what you can control is expanding your fishnet so that once the pandemic risks abate, your net is going to be so big you’ll be rolling in opportunities. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

Just do it

And those were my four key takeaways from the discussion. I’ll wrap up by stealing this quote from Ryan, originally said by the hockey Hall of Famer, Wayne Gretzky, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Even if the opportunities seem slim on the ground for foreign hiring at the moment, you can give yourself a fighting chance and maximize your chances by simply not giving up.