Paul Roberts

Director, Smart Partners KK

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

I can recall the happiest time in my childhood and the most miserable time too. They both occurred in the same week in 1981, when I was 9 years old.

I was born in Manchester and grew up in a South Manchester suburb. As a five-year-old in the late ‘70s, I’d been conned into supporting Manchester City by a neighbouring kid who wanted to play as Manchester United when we played Subbuteo (the table-top football game) together. He told me that the blue team was Man City, the best team in the world, and I fell for it. We were, I was later to learn, not the best team in the world. We weren’t even the best team in Manchester.

On 9th May 1981, I sat down with my family to watch Man City play Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup final. At last, we had a chance to win something! Things were going well for us, with Tommy Hutchison scoring in the 30th minute. I was elated. With 11 minutes to go, I was getting ready to celebrate the win. Then disaster struck. Hutchison scored an own goal and the game finished a draw. Five days later I watched the replay on the telly with my family. We lost the replay 3-2, despite holding the lead until the 70th minute. The winning Spurs’ goals won ‘Wembley Goal of the Century’. I was gutted. I also got curry on my Man City FA Cup Final rosette, and to this day I’ve never been able to get the stain off of the rosette (or my childhood soul).

We’ve obviously improved in the past decade or so, so the joke’s on that neighbouring kid now. I also get to take the mickey out of my many family members who are United fans. I waited a long time but it was worth the wait.

2. What seemed like an inconsequential decision at the time, but in hindsight turned out to fundamentally reshape your life?

I worked as a technical support engineer at a software company in London during the 1990s. While living in London, I made friends with a Japanese student who was studying for a master’s degree. She returned to Japan in 1998 and told me if I wanted to visit Japan on holiday, to just let her know. I jumped on the chance and went to Japan for two weeks in October ‘98. I had an amazing time. It was a completely different world than I’d experienced before – the people, the cities, the food, the culture (and I was lucky to have a bilingual guide, so I got to see real, non-touristy parts of Japan).

I got back to London and it was a cold, grey, rainy, winter (as always). I decided to quit my job to go back to Japan for the summer of 1999. I wasn’t too hopeful of finding a job there (I didn’t speak any Japanese, for a start), but it was time to move on from my current job and I thought to myself, why not? I could be a tourist for 3-6 months and could always return to London to find another IT job.

I landed in Japan in July 1999 and started attending a Japanese language school in Kyoto. I made friends with some of the other students and we decided to go to the one British pub in Kyoto at that time on our first Friday night after school. While we were enjoying a few pints of Guinness another foreigner around our age sat down alone at a nearby table. I’m not usually a ‘talk to random strangers’ kind of person, but we invited him to join us. It turns out he was an American IT engineer, working as a contractor in Tokyo. He told me I might be able to find an IT job in Tokyo and gave me his contract agent’s business card. Once school was over a couple of months later, I went up to Tokyo and visited the agency. They weren’t able to find me an IT job but asked me if I’d join their sales team, recruiting & selling IT services to global companies. I thought I’d give it a go for a year – I’d get paid for experiencing Japan some more.

Almost 24 years later and I’m still here. I married a Japanese woman, bought a house in Yokohama, and now mostly work from home in my pyjamas while our two dachshunds sleep at my feet. I’m very lucky.

I never dreamed in a million years that one conversation with a stranger in a pub would change the course of my life so profoundly. I’m still friends with that engineer to this day (and with the two guys from the Japanese school too).

3. What habit or behaviour or belief have you recently acquired? Why is it now in your life?

Waking up early. I always struggled to get out of bed on time, no matter how much or how well I slept. The number of times in my career that I’ve arrived at the office 5 minutes late is beyond counting. I didn’t know that weekends could start before 11 am.

About five years ago we got our first dachshund, Bob. He was still a puppy and would wake up at random times during the night, needing a walk before he’d go back to sleep. I ended up doing all the walking. Dachshunds go well in pairs, so we added Daisy to our gang a year later. She’s also an early riser. These days they wake me up from around 6 am to 7 am.

I’m definitely not one of those people hitting the gym at 5 am, but getting up early with the dogs, going for a walk, having a (very large) cup of coffee, and still getting some work done before 9 am has taken a lot of stress away (especially during the pandemic).

4. Name a well-known person you admire and explain why you hold them in high esteem.

Good question. He’s not well-known enough, but Stephen Wolfram, the British-American computer scientist, physicist & entrepreneur is fascinating to me. I’ve known about him for years (from his Mathematica software; his Wolfram|Alpha system is also used by Apple’s Siri) but I came across his podcast a couple of years ago and have spent hours listening to him.

A true genius (he had received his PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech by the age of 20 and set up his first company at 21), he’s also a fantastic communicator, with the ability to explain complex topics in clear, simple language in both his writing and his talks. I’ve definitely been influenced by his way of thinking and his approach to problem-solving. You feel smarter after listening to each podcast episode.

5. What is your untrainable superpower?

Probably my sense of humour. It’s a mix of the dry humour of the British along with the playful humour of the Irish, reflecting my parents and where I grew up. Recruiting is a rollercoaster of emotions and I don’t think you can have longevity in the business without being able to see the lighter side of life too. I take my work very seriously (I’m dealing with people’s careers, after all) but if can crack a joke and raise a laugh, I’ll take the opportunity every time. Ever had an offer from Goldman Sachs turned down by your candidate because their father-in-law had never heard of Goldman Sachs and wasn’t sure if it was a respectable place to work? Yeah. I could laugh at that, eventually.

6. What is the number one thing you would recommend every person in the world to practice from now on in order to increase their happiness and well-being?

I would say it’s giving other people the benefit of the doubt and not jumping to conclusions.

It’s known as Hanlon’s Razor, which teaches us not to assume the worst intentions in the actions of others.

Your candidate didn’t reply to your message? Maybe they’re not ghosting you and just didn’t see it. Your client is late in giving you feedback on the resume you sent? Maybe they’re not trying to end-run around you and contact the candidate directly – maybe they’re just late on a project and tied up.

Social media fuels rage and distrust, but try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and see where that leads you.

7. When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group? What/How did you learn?

I think it was probably when I joined my friend’s kickboxing gym seven or eight years ago. I’ve never been particularly sporty and I look like someone who sits in front of a computer for a living. I have absolutely zero flexibility. The gym was full of buff people stretching like ballerinas, skipping rope, and performing kicks to the face.

The trainer produced a device to help you stretch your hips and do the splits. You sit down, place this frame between your extended legs, and crank the handle. Hey presto, you’re doing the splits. Except for me, it barely moved a centimetre. Soon the whole gym had come over to have a look. What was so wrong with my body that the basic laws of fitness were being overruled? No one knew, but they thought it was hilarious. I did the only thing I could do – I joined in and played to the crowd. They even took a photo and put it on their homepage. I think it’s still there.

8) What do you think is acceptable today but will become taboo tomorrow?

Perhaps not the most original answer, but eating meat. I’m fascinated by the efforts into producing lab-grown meat. Not Impossible Burgers or soybeans mashed with palm oil and whatever, but real cultured animal cells.

If efforts to grow meat at scale and low cost do succeed (and I think it’s a big if), I think our descendants will be horrified to learn about how we treated livestock in the age of factory farming.

9) What app or tech product have you most recently fallen in love with?

I run my work life on a mix of Asana and Notion, the project management/productivity tools. They make sure I get things done that I need to get done.

Like everyone else, I’ve also been playing around with ChatGPT, mainly for research or learning (e.g. getting it to summarise the main ideas of something I’d like to understand better). Mad stuff.

10) What is the best purchase you’ve made recently? Why?

I recently bought a hardback set of Tolkien’s The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings, illustrated by Alan Lee. I’ve loved the books since childhood and always wanted a nice set of hardbacks to pass down the generations. Alan Lee’s illustrations are wonderful too.

11) If you were a giant mega Monster what city would you rampage first? Why?

That’s an easy one – Tokyo! Why? I live about 3 miles to the south of Tokyo, so I’d be able to kick off pretty quickly, and it would sit nicely with my “recruiter sense of urgency”.

I’d be pretty benevolent in my destruction, though, I think. Tokyo is a fine city, in general, but I would definitely smash up some of the soulless, modern skyscrapers that have sprung up over the past 20 years or so. Personality-less blocks of steel and glass, as you’ll find in many international cities, but I don’t find much of a connection between them and Japan. I’d probably devastate two or three of those and then drop into Tokyo Bay for a nap.

12. Aside from family & friends, if you could invite any 3 people - living or dead - to your final dinner party before the end of the world, who would they be and why?

Bob Dylan, Grandad Roberts, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bob Dylan, Grandad Roberts, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

My dad has been a fan of Bob Dylan since the ‘60s and I grew up with the sounds of Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, et al, drifting from the living room on weekends. I saw Bob live for the first time at Slane Castle, Ireland, in 1984, at the age of 12, and I’ve seen him with my parents many times since. I’d love to introduce my parents to Bob over the dinner table and talk about life and music with him. (I’ll also introduce my dog Bob, who was named after him)

My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother both passed away when I was two years old, but I still have vague memories of them. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was 17 and I knew her well. Unfortunately, Grandad Roberts died in 1959, when my father was just 10 years old. He had asthma, and he never fully recovered from his time in the deserts of North Africa during World War 2. I’d love the chance to get to know him a little, tell him how well his two sons turned out despite losing him so early in their lives, and tell him about his grandkids and great-grandkids.

For Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s simply because I find him to be a fascinating person overall. Of course, one of the greatest bodybuilders and action-movie heroes of all time, but not many people know he was also a millionaire before he made his first movie (from investing in real estate). Who else thinks “I’ll marry a Kennedy” and then does it? Or, “I think I’ll become the governor of California”, and then does that? Have a listen to his podcast with Tim Ferris from 2015 and it just scratches the surface of the man. Also, like the rest of us, he has his faults and acknowledges the role luck has had in his success (which I find to be quite rare among famous people).

13. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received? Who gave it and when?

“No one can guarantee you success as a recruiter except happy clients and candidates”

This was the motto of the first boss I had as a recruiter and he had it painted on the wall of the office as a constant reminder when he set up his own agency a few years later.

A lot of the complaints we hear about recruiters come from an overemphasis on client companies and not enough emphasis on candidate experience. Yes, we all know to work on the tasks that are “close to the money”, but I’m certain that carving out time to check in with job hunters and see how they’re doing, spend time helping someone improve their resume, or just having lunch with someone you placed years ago to catch up and see how they’re doing, will repay you in kind over the long term (and you’ll enjoy it too).

14. What's a skill that isn’t on your resume, but your former bosses would recognize as one of the reasons you are successful?

I’d say it’s probably being able to talk to anyone. I got the gift of the gab from my Irish mother (I got sent to the headmaster for talking too much during my first week of primary school!) but I’d like to think I’m also good at listening too.

I’m lucky that in my work in the Japanese tech job market, I get to speak with people from all over the world. It’s fascinating to learn about our differences, but perhaps more importantly, to learn about the features that unite us too.

15. What hiring heuristic do you generally go with?

I like to hire people who display curiosity. People who ask “why”. When I think of people I’ve worked with in the past that I admire, they’ve always sought to understand the reason things are the way they are, not just accept things at face value. It’s very common in Japanese corporate culture to find embedded rules or processes that just ‘are’. Knowing the “why” (and if it even exists anymore) is the first step to improvement.

If I interview someone and they have no questions for me, I do get worried.

16. What’s the one bad quality you wouldn’t mind in a colleague? Why?

Some mild tardiness (referring to my earlier comments). It gives me time to get another coffee.

17. When it comes to our work and industry: what scares you most?

I think it’s a lack of human connection in the recruiting process.

One day, will recruitment simply be my AI assistant talking to a company’s AI assistant and they work it all out between them, knowing me and the company/role better than we know ourselves? Maybe that’s where we’re headed, and maybe that’s inevitable, but until then, I hope that automation and technology are used to enhance our ability to connect as individuals, not replace it.

18. Do you have a secret tip, tool or trick that’s contributed to your success?

When you make a commitment to someone to do something, write it down. Every time.

I worked with a guy years ago who carried two notebooks. One was the usual meeting notes and to-do lists and scribbles and whatever, but the other one was different. Every time he told someone he’d do something, he’d write it down in the second notebook. He never forgot a commitment, big or small. Keeping track of them in a separate place meant they never got forgotten about or lost.

It probably sounds quite lame to many people, but how many times in the day do we tell someone we’ll give them a call next week or get back to them in a couple of days with an update, and then it all gets lost in the noise and activity? People remember when you follow up when you said you would. They remember all the more if you don’t.

19. If you could add a question for the next person to answer, what would it be?

Which famous historical figure do you think would make the best agency recruiter, and why?

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

Paul Goldsmith. Paul is a well-known figure in Tokyo’s English-speaking business community. When he’s not setting up or running staffing agencies (he founded Panache Corporation, one of Tokyo’s earliest bilingual staffing agencies and where I first worked in Japan), he’s running automotive or luxury businesses and communities, driving classic cars, or hanging around with Simon Le Bon.

Thank you to Paul Roberts for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune. Make sure to follow Paul on LinkedIn and check out his blog on paulroberts.jp

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