When it comes to creating the optimum workplace culture, companies must realize one thing: they can’t just guess. Everything is based on data.
That’s what Japanese serial entrepreneur Yumi Alyssa Kimura told The ACCJ Journal when asked how to shape a work environment that is equitable, diverse, and fully engages employees.
Kimura is the co-founder and chief executive officer of LEAD, a San Francisco-based human resources tech (HRTech) startup. The company’s online, desktop, and mobile services match employees to each other based on their interests, mentorship needs, and desire to connect with co-workers across the company.
The artificial intelligence-enabled platform also allows HR managers to aggregate and map out data, including that which shows employee behavioral patterns and company demographics. Such information can inform the company’s diversity strategies, change management goals, and employee career aims.
The upshot for employees is increased communication and engagement with co-workers, realization of personal goals, and greater job satisfaction.
Companies, meanwhile, benefit from a better understanding of the organization as a whole, not to mention the needs and aspirations of groups and individuals. Increased innovation and competitiveness—as well as growth in the bottom line—are also expected outcomes of using the platform.
“Employee engagement is not just about measurement such as people analytics, but also about letting employees talk to each other by building connections between teams,” Kimura said. “If more and more companies do that, then they will have a more open culture.”
Kimura may be onto something. Multinational consulting company Ernst and Young (EY) found in their 2019 EY Belonging Barometer study that employees who enjoy a sense of belonging are more productive, motivated, and engaged.
The research has four key findings:
- Diversity and belonging are workplace expectations, with 56 percent of respondents saying they felt they belonged when they were trusted and respected at work.
- Regular check-ins between co-workers prevented people from checking out, with check-ins taking priority over actions such as public recognition (23 percent), being invited to off-site events (20 percent), and being invited to join a meeting with senior managers (14 percent).
- The majority of women felt that exclusion from participating in workplace activities was a form of bullying; the opposite was the case for men.
- Of Millennials, 48 percent were least likely to feel that exclusion is a form of bullying, compared with 46 percent of Gen Xers and 44 percent of Baby Boomers.
When asked what emotion they feel when excluded at work, 40 percent across genders and generations said they were likely to feel ignored; 26 percent of men said they feel stressed and 28 percent of women said they feel sad when they are ignored.
Kimura has experienced many of the workplace dynamics that EY’s report highlighted. Indeed, it was due in part to such experiences at a tech startup and in the recruitment industry that she felt the need to found LEAD.
Back in 2016, when she lived in San Francisco, Kimura was tapped as the Japan country manager for Chinese telecommunications company Meitu Inc.
“I built Meitu Japan from scratch, including hiring my own people and increasing the company’s BeautyPlus product to more than 20 million users in Japan,” Kimura recalls.
She also led Meitu’s partnerships with large corporations in Japan, including with major telecoms and media companies. During the same period, Meitu listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Before Meitu, she had a stint working as an HR consultant in Tokyo for the Tardis Group and Hays Plc. Both are human-capital consultancies.
During her time at the tech startup and the HR companies, she interviewed some 3,000 professionals and new recruits about their careers. That experience was instructive, feeding directly into the workplace challenges she would later wish to solve at LEAD.
Meitu had a higher turnover rate in the global business compared with the Japan division, Kimura said.
“In Japan, we had zero turnover for more than a year,” she recalls. “The reason was that we managed our staff differently, because most of our employees back then were pretty young.”
Meitu’s Japan operation had a culture that prioritized mentorship, communication, and friendship among co-workers, and emphasized hitting key performance indicators (KPIs).
The result was mass adoption of the company’s main products across Japan—as well as high employee job satisfaction, engagement, and retention.
When Kimura consulted in the HR industry, one of her areas of focus was recruiting professionals in the fast-moving consumer goods market.
In that sector, the disparity in pay between female and male brand managers shocked her: women typically were paid salaries of $50,000–60,000, compared with $50,000–300,000 for men.
“That’s really crazy. And that’s one of the reasons that drove me to the United States—the gap was so huge. I decided that I couldn’t work in a country and live in an environment where I knew that the glass ceiling for women is around 50K, no matter how talented you are.”
Kimura is an alumna of Kwansei Gakuin University, in Hyogo Prefecture, where she majored in law, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where her focus was HR management and analytics.
Her knack for entrepreneurship goes back to high school, however, when she lived in Shanghai. Kimura consulted for a real estate agency, a tour guide company, and a talent sourcing company in Beijing between 2005 and 2007.
Before becoming Japan country manager at Meitu, she co-founded Spinnaker Partners Inc., the Silicon Valley-based arm of a Tokyo-established venture capital consultancy.
Later, in 2017, she co-founded LEAD. Earlier this year, the company graduated from the Alchemist Accelerator, a San Francisco-based startup incubator. But the venture-capital-backed company is not the only startup in the HRTech field.
At LEAD, Kimura’s goal is to solve many of the work-based challenges that she encountered in the United States and Japan—and that have been identified in studies.
The company’s solutions cover six main areas:
- Personal surveys
- Workplace culture building
- Company KPIs
- Behavioral insights design toolkit
A key goal of the platform is to provide insights into employee behavior—a field of research in which the results are often counterintuitive.
“For example, if you have 30 percent of female employees in the sales department that want mentors, HR is going to think they need mentorship to increase their sales performance,” Kimura said.
However, using behavior data, she showed that about five percent wanted to meet with engineers instead. The same number wanted to meet with product managers and co-workers in finance. How is that?
“Some of them wanted to change their career path. That’s why they were meeting with people from different departments—and doing so constantly.”
An outcome of such surprising choices in mentorship or lunch partnerships is that a person in sales, for instance, may want to begin a course on computer programming based on conversations with someone in the IT division.
Those kinds of surprising outcomes can only be captured through behavioral insights, Kimura said.
Turnover is another area in which such arguably surprising insights are valuable.
“Pay is actually not a big issue when looking at why most people quit,” Kimura pointed out. “Most of them leave because of co-workers, stress, lack of promotion, job dissatisfaction, and a negative relationship with the supervisor.”
LEAD has come a long way since it first iteration—the business-to-business platform was originally a peer-to-peer social network to connect women to mentors.
Today, it seeks to support the aspirations and interests of workers from all walks of life and demographics, and to provide companies with the tools and insights needed to realize the company’s goals.
“To change the corporate culture in Japan and abroad, we need more women role models, to show that women can become more successful,” Kimura said. “But it’s not just about women. Each individual has their own talent, and the company should treat them all as equals, and give them the opportunities to execute their abilities so that they can grow.”
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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