People at the heart of sustainable growth
As a true leader of global transformation and sustainable change, Jin Song Montesano serves as Director, Representative Executive Officer, Executive Vice President, Human Resources, Communications, External Affairs, and Impact Strategy, and Chief People Officer for LIXIL Corporation, the Japanese building and housing manufacturer that aims to make better homes a reality for everyone, everywhere. We talked to Jin about the realities of fostering wellbeing, developing next-generation managers, and the power of community.
We’ve been exploring the theme of wellbeing in this year’s research — to what extent are companies responsible?
First and foremost, lack of wellbeing is emerging as the next epidemic. As we come out of COVID, many people in the workforce are left with a huge sense of disconnection, a sense of loneliness and a lot of stress — it’s a burnout epidemic. It’s difficult to say whether it’s the company’s job or the person’s job to manage that, because actually it’s symbiotic.
Employers need to recognise that people spend well over eight hours a day at work and so a huge component of their waking hours is spent at this place called ‘work’. I’m always reminded of Satya Nadella’s famous quote: ‘are we working from home or sleeping at the office?’ I think it really encapsulates the sense of confusion that many are experiencing, wondering where to draw the boundaries and not let work and home life meld into one another. This confusion leads to further burnout and stress.
In fact, in this confusion and turmoil, it is in my view that companies who get this right can turn their approach into a competitive advantage. Companies who are creating workplaces that enable employees to thrive and improve or enhance their wellbeing are going to be able to retain their best talent, attract great talent, and enable talent to perform at a higher level. The business case for investing in wellbeing is actually very clear.
As Chief People Officer for LIXIL, you’ve been doing just that across 150 markets. Can you share any insights about the practical side of prioritising wellbeing, especially from the Japanese point of view?
Well, it’s a long and arduous journey, and one which actually starts with having clarity of purpose as a company. At LIXIL, fortunately, we’ve done the homework to really clarify what our greater purpose is: to make better homes a reality for everyone, everywhere. Under that purpose, we work to ensure that every single employee, every team, every plant, every supply chain organisation can articulate how they help make better homes a reality for everyone, everywhere.
The second piece is really to help articulate what it means to be a thriving workplace. At LIXIL, it’s not about when you work or where you work, but about how you work it and what your work is. What matters is the work itself and making sure that this work is meaningful to you, and that you’re empowered to do it in the way that works best for you. For example, we abolished core working hours, so you figure out by yourself or with your team leader what the most productive moments of your day are. At the end of the day, we’re putting ownership back on you.
In a lot of Japanese companies, everybody’s watching each other and thinking ‘If the boss is still here, I should hang around and look busy’. We talk openly about getting rid of that custom, focusing on the work and less on the ‘sontaku’ (worker efforts to do what they believe to be their superiors’ will).
Another change we made was around remote work. When we polled employees coming out of COVID, the vast majority were afraid that we might be going back to the old ways, and wanted to continue remote work. So, management decided to sell the three-building HQ campus and we moved HQ into one-floor of a new building. We went from an HQ site that sat around 6,500 to one that seats approximately 500. Managers now need to think through what kind of work can be done virtually and what kind of work is necessary to be done in person. It’s not simply about embracing “remote working” but about offering the flexibility to work where you can be most productive.
These are all significant ‘hard’ policy changes, but what about the ‘soft’ side of setting norms and building culture?
A huge focus for LIXIL has been about creating an inclusive work environment. Our mantra is that if ‘Inclusion’ is the goal, ‘Diversity’ is a natural outcome: our focus is not on the ‘D’ but the ‘I’. We were surprised to find out that Forbes JAPAN named us number one of their Diversity ranking, not because we’re already a successful diverse company — we’re not — but the strategy and the commitments that we’re working toward and the progress we’re making are considered well thought through and ambitious but realistic.
Recently, we were honoured to win the annual Visionary Award for Leadership and Governance of a Public Company sponsored by the Women Corporate Directors Foundation. The recognition has encouraged and motivated us to continue on our path; we really believe that focusing on Inclusion is the right strategy for us to achieve sustainable D&I outcomes.
We’re now at year three of the plan. The first two years were all about socialisation and clarifying the big “Why” — we spent a lot of time articulating a tailored narrative for LIXIL: ‘Why does D&I matter for LIXIL? Is this something we want to do because it’s a nice thing to do or is it really going to help us to become a more competitive and innovative company?’ We also built five ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) that are globally operated with local chapters in various geographies. These are bottom-up driven and HR plays a facilitation role. Each ERG is sponsored by an Executive Officer, so there is also leadership supporting their discussions and ideas.
We also used the first two years to build proper governance — what is the decision making process for codifying the D&I strategies and commitments? Our CEO chairs the D&I Committee and the top business leaders are members of this governance body.
In year three, which is the current fiscal year, we’re beginning the shift of accountability from HR leading the way to the business taking the lead on their D&I agenda. Each P&L will be provided with a state of play in their organisation, and in discussion with their HRBP, they will set an action plan for how to advance their agenda. Progress will be reported on the basis of what we call the D&I Dashboard. This dashboard provides progress against commitments to the D&I Committee and is also shared with the LIXIL board.
That’s a huge step. How are you equipping managers to tackle this transition in their own roles within that company context?
In any company, managers are either the weakest link or the crucial strong core of the company that is holding up the entire organisation’s ability to achieve. I am well aware of the fact that I can say all the things that I want to say, but nothing will happen if managers are not convinced or on board with the executive direction. So it’s really important that we take the time to get managers on board.
Managers are constantly feeling squeezed. We have to go from where the manager is, what their identity is, what their pain points are, what they are struggling with, and why it is that they aren’t as effective as they could be. That’s what I call the ‘mindset’ and the ‘skillset’: there are skillsets that are core to being a great manager at LIXIL, but first, there’s the mindset — we’re working on a new training program this year that focuses on how to enable great managers at LIXIL.
Communication is key. You know the famous story about when President Kennedy asked a janitor at NASA about his job, and he replied: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon”. That kind of strategic alignment is gold for companies, and most companies struggle to execute because strategic alignment is weak. Alignment can be weak for a number of reasons, but one of the key root causes is because most managers are not effectively communicating the information that is needed for employees to feel connected and aligned to what the company is trying to achieve. Some managers believe their job is to be ‘task checkers’ — to check that the work got done. Communication is simply not part of their job, some would say. This is a huge part of getting managers to recognise what they can do.
And right now, they might be feeling overwhelmed. That’s why any new program we launch has to come from the manager’s perspective. For example, the kickoff videos need to be saying ‘Hey, managers, you are really the heroes of this company. And the reason why you’re in that job is because we know that you carry everyone. And here’s how you might need to ‘unlearn’ some things in order for you to ‘relearn’ how to move forward.’
Learning, and as you put it, unlearning and relearning, are clearly essential to developing effective managers, but traditional training methods are beginning to feel outdated. What are you planning to do differently in your upcoming programs?
We’re going to avoid the classroom approach where it is not effective. There will be some online learning, but it’s going to be much more two-day dialogue, community building, and ecosystem supported: we want people to recognise that this is like being part of an important club where you can learn from each other, not just in a one-off program but throughout your time with the company. People need strong networks across the company to learn new things and become stronger enterprise leaders.
There will be case studies, quizzes, assessments, and building and sharing action plans to implement in your team.
Do you have any other examples of community at work?
Yes, two years ago, as part of the D&I strategy, we launched five Employee Resource Groups. They’re all global but they meet as local hubs and chapters. And it’s really just for anyone who wants to be part of that community: you don’t have to be gay to be part of the LGBTQ community, you can be an ally. People volunteer, and then they mobilise conversations, discussions, learning from the community and supporting each other. We also encourage them to have physical meetings, to get together and have lunch together, even if it’s just local.
I think, really, community-based education and learning is the best way to go because people seek affinity.
As the world constantly evolves, so does the concept of the manager. Still very much at the core of the business, their role has shifted from mere supervision to purposeful communication and fostering strategic alignment among their teams: meaningful change requires a compelling narrative that brings people together.
We must also remember that, as we train the next generation of managers, the skills that will be required of them in the future are vastly different from those of their current superiors. Developing a learner’s mindset, unlearning old ways, and tapping into the power of community are essential for the sustainable growth of the organisation.
Fabric is a Strategic Design and Sustainability consultancy helping businesses move towards more innovative, sustainable futures. Based in Tokyo, we’ve been consulting with global and local companies since 2004. We have extensive experience bringing together design thinking, sustainability, and human insight to deliver good strategy for clients.