On this episode of Future Work, we welcome Renee Kida, a high-impact human resource leader with over 20 years of corporate experience in Japan and APEC at companies like Google, Goto, and Ikea.
Some of Renee's many areas of expertise include project management, change management, diversity and inclusion initiatives, client relationship management, team leadership, talent management initiatives, and organizational development.
Join us as we hear about:
- Renee’s journey from the US to Asia, and into HR
- Cultural differences in markets like Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia
- Why HR needs to understand the broader context they are working in
- High-context versus low-context cultures in communication styles
- The challenges of managing people
- Why and how managers should tap into HR for guidance, programs, and frameworks
- The importance of building relationships for remote managers
- The need for open communication, understanding of working preferences, setting expectations, and providing accountability
- Why and how senior teams need to model proactive behavior
- How to prioritize people management alongside the manager’s own work
- The difficulty and importance of transitioning from an Individual Contributor to a People Manager
Ensure you listen to the end to hear about Renee’s mantra of ‘Consider, act, reflect, reiterate” as a framework for a better work-life.
Find Renee on LinkedIn.
Future Work is the bi-weekly podcast from Daan van Rossum, CEO of FlexOS – the platform that helps hybrid and remote managers level up their leadership game. Find all episodes on our website, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all other podcasting platforms.
Daan: What prompted your move from San Francisco, where you studied, to Asia? Also, how has your career progressed since then?
Renee Kida: I was born in the Bay Area in Oakland, California. My major in college was Japanese studies. When I was a young girl of 15, I went to Asia. Due to its size and diversity, Asia has always fascinated me.
In the 80s, I went to Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and South Korea on a trip for five weeks. Back then, it was still the bubble in Japan, Hard Rock Cafe and tight bodycon dresses. Taiwan was going through massive industrialization. China was very different than the China of today. Korea was going through student strikes. It was a very interesting time.
But it was my first time being in Asia beyond the theoretical or what I saw in museums or read in books, and it still was as interesting as I always had thought.
It made me realize that certainly, I can't study all of Asia and do anything effective or have a career that would have been like boiling the ocean. I decided to focus on Japan because I was under the mistaken idea that the Japanese language was easier. I learned later that was not true, but I learned more words easily in Japan.
Also, even though it was very comfortable because it was a thriving economy in modern society, I felt like whenever you scratched anything just to the surface, there was always something unique that was Japanese. It wasn't particularly Western in any real way. That was fascinating, even at the young age of 15.
Out of college, I studied Japanese. Took a long time in college, but finally graduated, and in 1998, I came to Japan. My first job was in marketing because I didn’t want to get into teaching English like a lot of people did. So I found a job in marketing at a medical devices company. Over time transitioned into HR, went back to school, and got my MBA. My first HR job was with IKEA Japan. Then Google Japan.
Then, I had been in Japan for 20 years, and y husband was retired so he was mobile. He could go anywhere in the world. He had not lived outside of Japan, he is Japanese. We decided to come to Singapore, and I've lived in Singapore for five years now. First with Google Singapore, and then transitioned over to GoTo Financial, an Indonesian company, for the last two years.
Daan: Why did you choose to work in HR?
Renee Kida: That's a great question. I learned in the first company, in the medical devices company, that things and products don't interest me much. People interest me a lot. They also drive me a little crazy some days, but that’s another story. I think it’s because I have a passion for people. I realized in my first job that I only got my motivation when it was around people.
And that was either the external people - marketing to customers because medical devices are much more customer-based marketing, such as study groups, educational courses, and that kind of marketing, than particularly pure product marketing like Coca-Cola.
And then it’s Internal people, employees - how do you get the best out of them and how do you motivate them and how do you recognize them, and also how do you hold people accountable?
At the very beginning of my career, my HR wasn't very good in my company. It was more personnel-like. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn since it’s a long time ago, and those people aren’t there anymore, so they will probably not hold it against me that I say this. It made me reflect a lot about what would be a better way.
That made me decide when I started to think about my career more long term, not just, “hey, I got to Japan,” “hey, I have a job in business,” “now I'm learning the basics of business and Japanese business culture,” but what do I want to do with that then. I decided that HR was probably the right way for me. That was probably what motivated me much more. So, I made the transition.
Daan: And from that moment on, it was all about people!
It’s interesting, and you probably know this as much as anyone, but HR is about people processes, people approach, organizational structures, and various things that enable that. I think people often mistake, you know, what does HR do? Either they think it's things like payroll, leaves, hiring, and training courses which is a part of it. Or they think it's like a, “Oh, I like people, I want to grow people,” sort of thing.
HR is not necessarily the one that grows people. HR are the ones that deal with a lot of the heavy stuff, the problems around people issues or initiatives or challenges.
So, it's not necessarily the fun part of people sometimes. That part is much more of the frontline manager and the leaders themselves that do that kind of interesting work, and it's HR that supports that; how to do that more effectively, how to structure things in a better way, how to think about leadership development or succession planning so that we have the right capabilities in the organization to grow people and to grow leaders to do that better and better over time.
Daan: So if it’s all about people, and many times the not-so-fun side of people, what are some of the differences you’ve seen in the markets you’ve worked in? You’ve been heavily exposed to Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia; what cultural differences have you noticed in how these countries manage their businesses and view human capital?
Renee Kida: I’m always a bit nervous about this question because I don’t want to be stereotypical or overly generalized. From my experience, for what that’s worth, there are a lot of similarities because it is Asia. There's a wide berth of Asian cultures. Some fundamental pieces are similar: it’s more community-based, more high-context than low-context, and various aspects. So I see many similar and often more similar traits than I probably would have expected.
There are a lot of things about Indonesia that remind me of Japan, and in fact, there are a lot of things about India because I've also done a fair amount of work in India, though I haven't lived there that reminds me of Japan and on first blush, people wouldn't necessarily think so.
Where the differences arise is, when you're working in business, people often segment out business as a separate thing. There is business, and then there's your personal life. There's business, and then there's culture. There's business, and there's society.
Nowadays, people are challenging that in various aspects. One of the things from an HR perspective is the history, demographics, the culture of countries that come out of those histories, demographics, political events, and various other events that inform things like labor law and business practices.
For example, Japan has never been run by an outside power; they've never been a colony. A big part of their history is protecting their borders from the outside to protect their internal integrity. There are good things and bad things about that.
But that impacts things like their internal system, processes, and laws having more longevity than others. They're not necessarily impacted by British or other influences.
There are a lot of countries, for example, in Asia, that have been British or Dutch colonies and have that history, and what those things do in terms of mindset and thinking.
For example, my Japanese husband and I lived there for 20 years. People are often surprised that I don't hold a Japanese passport. If you know anything about Japan, you would understand that because of the history, the political dynamics, and the demographics, the idea of a Japanese person is a much more closed concept than maybe Singapore, which has a very different history of how it's developed and evolved.
Those things interplay with each other, and I think as an HR person, and you think business, you might not necessarily think those things have an impact. But learning more about the countries you're working in and the longer history of those countries, the demographic of the countries. For example, Southeast Asia is very young populations more often than not, and clearly, Japan is not. It has one of the oldest aging societies in the world.
So that impacts things like hiring, the leadership mean average, the talent progression, and succession planning. When you're in a young country, that impacts things like work expectations, sense of their expectations around when they would get promoted, their expectations towards a company in terms of their career path and their cycle, and also what the attrition rates would be, how long someone would stay in the company, etc.
Those sorts of aspects I find you have to understand, try to start to learn the broader context that you're working in, not just the business context because it gives a lot of color and a lot more depth to understand beyond the sort of catchy phrases or generalities that people often say. You can understand the nuance and do much better if you know more.
So I feel like that's the difference I've incurred. That's true of each country is similar. But what is that unique piece of that history, the demographics, etc., that really helps you as an HR professional to be better in the markets that you work in?
Daan: Super interesting, and it sounds like there is a lot of connection between the kind of culture a company is trying to build and the culture that they’re in. There may be something so wonderful about being a bit of an outsider to observe these kinds of things. You made a comment regarding high-context versus low-context. That’s probably something that’s familiar to you, can you share about those differences?
It has been a few years since I've studied this, but there’s a body of work and research about high-context and low-context cultures, where the lower the context culture, the more explicit you need to be in the communication. So it's more direct, more explicit, and more detailed.
High-context culture is about reading the body language, understanding the larger history, and reading people's faces; you know things through relationships without people having to be overly explicit.
Obviously, a lot of Asian cultures tend to be higher context, though Chinese and Singaporean, I think, is lower context than probably, for example, Japanese. The US is relatively lower-ish, but it's not the lowest.
It's a very interesting body of work to read about. A few books are not too academic, and they're not too long if someone's interested in picking up one to learn a little bit about the concepts.
Daan: All of that comes to life in how people manage their teams, understanding the cultural context. There’s something you mentioned something I remember to this day, which is that "HR can only sow the seeds." Can you expand on that and share what you meant by that?
Renee Kida: It was part of a larger conversation, but my team members will laugh when they hear this if they listen. I often talk about HR, that it's like gardening and that you can plant the seeds, you can use fertilizer, whether it's organic or it's chemical fields -I'm not picking a side, you can try to get the right sunlight, the right timing, the right amount of water, but there is an art or right timing to things. And the thing about HR is you do not have good direct control more often than not.
We are not frontline direct control business roles. We are supporters. We're enablers. We're challengers. We're advisors, but we are to the side to make things work, and as such, people have their own timing for topics about themselves. You can bring the research and the data. You can give the voice of the employee. You can talk about the risks in the market and the risks in the law, but you still cannot force people to do things on your timeline.
Often in HR with either myself, my peers, or my team members, they go, “I told them about this last month, and no one listened to me, and now, they suddenly are asking me about it.” And they're very frustrated. And I'm like, “yeah, I get it.”
But that's the thing when you're tending your garden and planning your flowers or vegetables, in the back of the package, it says, “This will bloom in April, early April, or late June” or whatever that is. But the reality is it might bloom in a week. It might bloom in a month.
I've had people come back to me ten years later and go, “Renee, you know that thing you said? I remember that and it made me so upset at the time, and now, it's so helpful, it was so impactful.”
Hopefully, for most people, it doesn't take ten years, but you will have those in your life and career. In HR, there's a lot of that. So you have to be able to lean into that and think about how you influence and leverage data, the qualitative and the quantitative, how do you leverage the head and the heart? That means what do they want to achieve, but also what do they want to avoid?
You have to leverage beyond yourself. Sometimes the best way to land something isn't through you. It's leveraging someone else to say something similar; maybe you can do more of an ecosystem of influence.
I remember, very early in my career, I was struggling with my manager, and my President then came up to me and said, “Renee, you have to manage your manager.” And I was 29 or 30, and I thought, what a load of crap, why must I manage him? Just get him out of the way and let me do it directly. And I thought, ugh, and I was so frustrated. And then I was in a different situation for three years, maybe less. I was managing someone, and the words came back to haunt me, which it was like, I'm just in a different position in the organization.
But I was literally telling my own team member, “Utilize me.” I said it differently than my President did back then, but I realized that it was like, “look, I'm a tool. My job is to support you, but if you don't use me effectively, I can only go so far into reading your mind or understanding the context. I will try my best, but sometimes I'll get it wrong. So leverage me in an effective way and let's discuss and figure out together so that we do that better together.”
And I realized that idea of “manage your manager” in his gruff and surly way was true, whether it was me to my manager or my team to me, and that there was wisdom in that.
It's another one of those gardening pits where a seed planted even in me, and I went back and went, “ugh, he was right.” And I think that there's a lot of those in life and certainly a lot of those in this work for sure because you are dealing with people and it's not like a product where you have a mathematical problem and one plus one equals two every time.
People have their own context, history, agendas, and blind spots. It takes sort of timing and art when they will sprout or not.
The reality is sometimes there are also dead seeds, which is what it is. And you have to surrender that control and realize that maybe it didn't land right, or maybe you weren't even right, and something else will be better.
So, I think you have to both try really hard in this work and realize when it's the time to surrender that sort of ultimate control of the endpoint. You can put your heart into the effort but not necessarily in the outcome.
Daan: It sounds like there was this incredible transformation that you had to accomplish in people, where you said, hey, we’re not here to directly influence the majority of how people experience working in this company; we have to do it through those who directly manage them.
When you shared it with me, it was very insightful because I still thought that a lot of the big themes we were hearing about companies and culture and employee experience that it gets done by HR.
But obviously, most of your employee experience is with your manager. So if we flip that, what, on the other hand, can managers do to use more of the expertise and comprehension that the HR team might possess? How can they better utilize that resource?
Renee Kida: First and foremost, the manager's role is hard. I would say one of the hardest jobs someone takes is when they first time is a frontline manager.
You're suddenly standing in front of people and have this sense of, “I'm in control and I'm in power,” but you're also standing in front of people, and you take the heat of those responsibilities. It's you're on the line. You're also sitting between you and another layer. So what do they expect of you versus what your team expects of you?
There are many things to challenge, to traverse, and pitfalls, and almost nobody's prepared for that fully.
I would say, one, get the support you need from HR. First, you need to have enough reflection to understand what support you need to ask for. You don't necessarily have to have the answer of what it will look like, but you do need to have a sense of where you feel like you're struggling and where would support advice, direction, programs, or what you would be helpful.
There needs to be a little bit of reflection, and there needs to be a little bit of honesty and vulnerability.
Often leaders are not comfortable with that. Managers don't feel safe saying that they're vulnerable, even though they absolutely must be, and then being able to be curious and to talk to their HR to say, “hey, here's the things I'm struggling with. How can I think about it? What are the rules, what are the processes? What has worked before? What programs might there be? Are there some frameworks that I could be leveraging?”
Because often, the reality is though it might seem very fluffy, there is a huge body of work out there in multiple areas, depending on whatever it is that you're struggling with, people and experts that can support you with it. They can't do it for you, and they can't give it on top of you, but they can engage with you to figure out how to deploy it best.
Engaging hybrid and remote employees
Daan: One of those big topics is hybrid work and remote work. We see a lot of managers and businesses having trouble with distributed work, remote work, and hybrid work. What help can HR teams give managers? What should managers consider when overseeing teams that they might only encounter once, twice, or less frequently in distant companies?
What steps can they take to ensure that you continue to achieve the full potential and performance of your team?
Renee Kida: The interesting thing when I was working at Google is that they do a fair amount of research within the company that would normally be done in a university. They have this people analytics team and some incredibly smart people that do research internally and have come out with some great work out of that.
One of the things that they did do and that I got to be a very small part of because I just happened to work in the same office with the woman who was running a big chunk of the project because she was in Japan, was about remote work, way before the pandemic six or seven years ago, and less about remote work and it was about distributed work.
So yes, not so much that you were fully remote, but it's very common in many big multinational companies around the world when you're not in the headquarters office that you're not sitting with your team or you're sitting with your manager, you might still be sitting in the office.
For example, when I was at Google, I sat in the office but never actually sat with my team for most of my career.
And so you had to figure out how to build relationships, and what the data came down to is that you must invest time and effort. It's one of those remote or distributed ways of working that just means everything you probably feel when you sit together. You need to make a bit more conscious effort to get to know people.
You need to build time in your one-on-ones to say, “How is their day? Where are they stuck? Is there anything going on? If they're comfortable that they might want to share? What are their working preferences or styles? How do they want to be held accountable?”
Because accountability is a manager's job, but you can’t have enough conversations about that accountability. And if there's a way that the manager is comfortable giving, then the employees their needs and figure out a compromise.
Setting out those, investing in those conversations, building out those expectations, in some ways carving out those frameworks so that if and when things derail or issues come up, you just go back to those and go, “Okay, so as we talked about, these are sort of what have I expect? But I also want to be there for you. Tell me what's going on. How can we traverse this?”
I think those are the things that work. It's true whether you're in the office one day or three days there. Honestly, even if you're 100% in the office, you're often not sitting next to your manager all day. There are those jobs, of course, but they're less and less as we deal with knowledge workers.
In the companies I worked in, those kinds of jobs are almost nonexistent, by and large. You're independently moving independently, even if you're at the office and I'm at the office, and we're sitting in the same building. I'm in one meeting room, you're in another meeting room. We're barely at our desks.
So the still sense of you have to carve out time for your team, and people management is a part of your role and how do you engage that is still something we often, as HR, have to engage our leaders to try to emphasize.
We have to do it at the top because a lot of the senior leaders, the more and more as they get senior, they do that less because they have super competent people. They don't invest in that so much. Those people are sort of more autonomous, but they need to be able to do that still because those people, in my experience, engagement with them, actually still have questions about their career development and wonder their guidance from their own leaders and managers and what they expect, despite if they're a VP or not or even an executive VP, even a President. With that, it also role models the rest of the organization.
So you're missing out on the potential to say, “Here's sort of the framework that I want you to cascade down through your organization.” If you're expecting that you can just talk about it and then somewhere in the organization's middle, it will suddenly appear and cascade down. Not necessarily.
Making time to manage
Daan: It almost sounds like there are two things in very senior teams that you expect the people under you to do well, and they won't reach out for help proactively. And then, if you don't model it there, it doesn't cascade down in the organization.
Everyone feels like, well, my team seems to be doing well, so I'm not going to go out of my way to ask them the questions, spend more time and effort. It was everything that we were supposed to do before, but now even more.
I think one main thing we hear remains that people management is a part of your job. But for most managers, especially first-time or young managers, it's just something that was added to doing their own work, and they don't have the time for it.
What would the expert say? What is a way to manage people still well even though you feel like you don't have the time for it?
I would say two things. They are a bit tough love, so I should apologize for that initially.
One is you just have to carve out time. The reality is you can say that about many things in life. Eating well, exercising, or getting enough sleep is hard. All the critical things in life that you know will make you more productive, successful, healthier, and happier are the things that we put on the back burner more often than not because we have habits that have gotten us this far in life.
Though they will start to break us down at some point, either professionally or personally or both, we don't often prioritize those because our habits are so ingrained, and what got you to manager will not get you to senior manager.
I often quote Marshall Goldsmith's book, “What Got You Here Won't Get You There.” It's such a good book, but the title alone is so powerful and true in so many things that you must learn to reinvent yourself at different stages of your life.
You have to be able to learn how to break habits and reform new habits. Some of that is you have to make time for your team. How much and how you do that is a learning process for everyone because I'm not going to try to downplay that some organizations don't give much time for that aspect and probably layer on many of the IC role, even in the manager role.
But the other piece is that, yes, that's probably true, but there is a piece of also many people who are strong individual contributors, when they become a people manager, keep acting like an individual contributor.
They're an amazing salesperson, and they become a sales manager. Instead of thinking about how I create 20 great salespeople, that's my job now, they keep acting like the best salesperson in the team, and everybody else needs to come along and catch up, and I'll support you.
Daan: There is always that risk of, “hey, it's quicker to do it myself than to explain it to you.” Therefore, you don't become a good coach, and you're not getting people in with you, and it doesn't become a shared mission.
This is one of the most difficult transitions that people have to make, and usually, organizations don't support people particularly well in making that transition. It's handed to you, and you must deal with it.
Yes. In my first company, I saw that very close up-hand, a mentor of mine that struggled with that. She was incredibly strong, capable, and had deep expertise, but she'd been an expert for so long that it was a huge challenge for her to shift when she got her first manager role. That was very informative for me.
But even with that information, I struggled the first time I became a people manager in Google. I'll be really honest and vulnerable, I had horrible people manager scores. It shocked me, and I had some tears and learned how to shift my style and not jump in and try to solve everything because I had been like a buddy and a mentor to so many people. That was what would be so different and the dynamics are dramatically different when you're suddenly the manager.
Learning how to take the feedback, painful or not, and figure out how to adjust my style was a painful but great learning curve. That, yes, organizations can do more to support you, but even in the organizations that don't do it, don't use that as too much of a reason because there's ways to still do it yourself. There are still ways to try to if you know that this is something you're struggling with.
Face it head-on and figure out or at least try and practice how to make that better because organization or not organization, if you figure out how to improve that in yourself, for yourself and for your teams, you'll be able to carry that skill set further in your career longer term and so it will take you far.
Consider, Act, Reflect, Reiterate
Daan: We could talk for hours more, so we’ll have to make it a part two at some point.
To wrap up, if you could share or teach the world one thing that would fit on a single billboard, what would it be?
Renee Kida: In all reality, I think my billboard changes over time.
So I probably have scattered through my life, multiple billboards.
At this point in my exact life, my billboard would say, “Consider, Act, Reflect, Reiterate!”
“Consider, Act, Reflect, Reiterate!”
Daan: Perfect, if we had people with us we could say this as a mantra together! Renee, beautiful sharing. Thank you so much for being here today.