One of the best articles I read this year was a New York Times article titled “Young and Global Need Not Apply in Japan.” It 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, simply too elite to fit in, too eager to get ahead, too opinionated, too assertive, too inquisitive, 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)

The Personal Branding Style Dial

This down playing of skills, experience, and styles reminds me of a crucial component of cross-cultural personal branding. Successful personal branding for a 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. You always want to be true to your brand attributes, not divert from them. The dial allows you to be true, but at varying degrees.

Keep Your Personal Brand at ‘5’

I always encourage people to keep their personal brand 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, its fullest potential, it can be much more challenging to mentally dial down to a 2. In other words, the 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 would 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, let’s say with your American manager for your performance review, then emphasizing your individual achievement is expected. In this case you dial-up from 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 group harmony. Your are not giving up your brand, but based on the cultural context you are reigning it in. Demonstrating your brand to its fullest in this situation would likely damage the relationship with your Japanese customer.

Be You but Within Reason

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 not abandoning your brand attributes and you are not creating a false image. You are simply adapting, adjusting, and aligning your brand to maintain successful cross cultural relationships. The Personal Branding Style-Dial ensures that your brand is not ‘over-spec’ and that you can dial in your brand based on the cultural context you are in.


Peter Sterlacci is known as “Japan’s personal branding pioneer” and is one of only 15 Master level Certified Personal Branding Strategists in the world. He is introducing a leading global personal branding methodology to companies and careerists in Japan and adapting it for the Japanese culture. In a culture where fitting-in is the norm, his mission is to pioneer a ‘cultural shift’ by helping Japanese to stand out in a global environment. His background spans over 21 years in intercultural consulting, international outreach, and global communication coaching.