As she works to transform the company's 130-year-old corporate culture and the implementation of Purpose, we talked with Group Chief Sustainability Officer Ryoko Shimokawa about her vision for sustainable growth for the company and society.
In Japan, human resources professionals with diverse backgrounds are being appointed as "sustainability officers" to further societal transformation. One such case is at Sompo Holdings — which provides P&C insurance, life insurance, nursing care, and digital and healthcare services under its corporate umbrella. In August 2021, Sompo Holdings appointed Ms. Ryoko Shimokawa as its Group Chief Sustainability Officer (CSuO) at the executive level. After working for a foreign-affiliated securities company and a major restaurant chain, she joined Sompo Himawari Life in 2016, working as an Executive Officer and General Manager at our HR Dept.
Transforming the company's 130-year-old corporate culture and aiming for the implementation of Purpose, we talked with Ms. Shimokawa about her vision for sustainable growth for the company and society.
Initiatives for a ‘New Normal’ amid declining birthrates and aging populations
Presently, what does Sompo Holdings consider to be major social issues?
RS: We view the "New Normal" and declining birthrates and aging populations as major issues to be addressed. In the "New Normal," uncertainty is becoming heightened in many ways — including in intensifying climate change and natural disasters, along with advances in digital technology — and this is all creating new risks, etc. First, we must figure out how to deal with all this.
Then, we must think about declining birthrates and aging populations. Especially here in Japan, the number of children being born is decreasing and the population itself is aging; and this brings difficulty to public finances. Amid such a situation, SOMPO has embarked on a nursing care business. Stepping into that, various problems arose — such as a widening gap between demand and supply. Besides the shortage of nursing care providers, there are many difficulties — such as in the needs of nursing care recipients varying from person to person. This is an issue that Japan must really tackle right now; and we, too, have to work on it.
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While responding to challenges, we try to establish a means that is proper as a business. And if necessary, I would like to work on appealing to the world to raise the labor remuneration, etc, of people working in the nursing care field.
Regarding SOMPO's own purpose, could you tell us the definition of this?
RS: Our purpose is to create a society in which every person can live a healthy, prosperous and happy life in one’s own way via a "A Theme Park for Security, Health & Wellbeing." Regarding such a "theme park," this has been set as a vision since 2015. Now, in embodying purpose and making that visible to everyone, we are now in the phase of gaining understanding. The point is that the purpose is not expressed via phrases/words such as "nursing care" and "insurance."
Together with our own purpose, we provide three areas of societal value imperatives:
- Protect people from future risks facing society.
- Create a future society for healthy and happy lives.
- Foster the ability to change future society with diverse talent and connections.
Rather than just being an "insurance company," the idea is to carry out business in a way necessary to realize a society much like the one we are discussing here. CEO Kengo Sakurada also wants people to see Sompo Holdings as a company that was "once an insurance company" — but, not now.
Insurance is basically for "just in case." However, the truth is that we hope that the situation involving "just in case" simply never occurs, or at least that it occurs as delayed as possible. Rather than just sit back and wait for the "just in case" and lean in when something unfortunate happens to people, SOMPO is proactively expanding business toward becoming a presence that's always at the ready with positive value in hand.
Then, for those using SOMPO or that have insurance, as well as for those that do not, everyone can ensure their own "Security, Health & Wellbeing" by engaging with SOMPO at its "theme park" — all so as to be able to enjoy their own life in a healthy & prosperous way. We can provide such a "theme park" via real and virtual means. By creating more and more "attractions," we aim to provide new value. This is a big point of transformation for our company.
Becoming an organization that grows through the realization of the purpose of each individual
In terms of ‘dissemination of purpose,’ you are now working on your ‘MY Purpose’ program — with the aim of becoming a purpose-driven company that grows from the realization of each employee's true purpose. Why is this important?
RS: There are two approaches for raising a "dissemination of purpose." First, we must personalize; and then, we must turn what we personalized into being usable as a company. We are working on both of these aspects right now.
The most-important thing is to "be yourself." The idea is that you are not "working at the company"—you are "working at your life." Many people that work for large Japanese companies, where lifetime employment has taken strong root, sometimes lose sight of themselves or become strongly unaware of what matters to them even if they started out knowing their own purpose. On the other hand, many younger people already have an ability to "put themselves first."
There are three reasons why "being yourself" is important. One involves "diversity & inclusion," which is one of the values that SOMPO aims to transmit to society. In Japanese insurance companies, many women are employed. But simply having a lot of women doesn't make clear sense. There are many ways that people are diverse, including nationality and the company that they used to work for; and it doesn't make much sense to talk about "diversity" unless those people can actually express their ideas — not just their appearance. We can't just say that it's great that a bunch of different people are sitting in a conference room.
In order for a company to transform itself, it is necessary to make the best use of diversity; and it is important to recognize this and make the best use of the existence of these different people. You see, insurance companies are not home to special technology such as at automobile companies; so, products can be imitated immediately. Thus, "people" are an important asset. So, it doesn't make much sense if people can’t be themselves or if they are homogeneous in thought. It is because everyone is an individual that they fight for their opinions, resulting in innovation.
Secondly, this all has to be intrinsic. Purpose is not decided externally — it is something that we ourselves as a company want to embody. Therefore, too, if each one of us is not acting organically, we can't become motivated or powerful. "Do XYZ like this because that's how XYZ is" — absolutely not. It should be: "I want to do XYZ like this; so for that to happen, I have to do ABC in this way."
Thirdly, because our purpose is aligned with "everyone living their own life," we realize that everyone simply has to be "themselves." Otherwise, we can’t stand close to where that sense of oneself is.
For these reasons, we value "MY Purpose." However, if "purpose" is perceived in the same way as the missions of the company that have been set so far, or if it is perceived as simply "company policy changing again," it will not help — and the company will not grow.
How are you working to prevent this?
RS: We are working top-down, bottom-up, vertically (organizational line), and horizontally (community/grassroots).
As for the transmission of top management, CEO Sakurada has been participating in our Town Hall Meetings via Zoom since September 2021. These meetings have been held seven times so far (as of December 2021), with a total of 10,000 employees participating. The speakers are CEO Sakurada himself, outside facilitators, and four representative employees; and people from all our group companies in Japan participate. We ask them to think about why they are doing what they do and what they want to do.
At the meetings, we don't talk about the company's purpose — we talk about the individual participants and their own purpose. CEO Sakurada brings up such topics, and then relates them by talking from the point of "in my case." When a person in the P&C insurance business hears views from a person in the nursing care business, a different way of thinking can be generated, and different stimuli can be received. And you can also begin to think about yourself.
How can one connect with Sompo's Purpose? In that situation, managers and their staff can hold 1-on-1 dialogue toward achieving personal purpose through their work. We ask them to reconsider their source of motivation; and then, we can inquire how they can use the company to do what they want. In this way, we work on ideas of "how things should be."
In terms of trying things out, this tends to mean that people think of their work quite narrowly. By having a manager, etc., standing nearby, we can support people in thinking about how what they want to do can be achieved or how a job could be worthwhile. Then, if you're a middle manager, you might use this information to assign some new project to a certain person. In including such things, middle management can help to provide for such synergy and is an important role.
Finally, we do measure the progress of how this "dissemination of purpose" is resonating. We conduct a questionnaire every time we hold our Town Hall Meetings, measure engagement twice a year, and proceed forward while grasping the situation quantitatively. In a survey of 10,000 employees, 99 percent said that they sympathized with this "dissemination of purpose."
‘Dissemination of purpose’: A change of the company and its culture
What are the difficulties with the dissemination of the concept of ‘Purpose’?
RS: Well, if you don't connect these things organically, even if you have these Town Hall Meetings, things cool down after a while. Therefore, on-site efforts are important. Although, even if you go 1-on-1 at a specific site, it's easy to start talking about business only; so, in the sense that the person himself/herself always keeps in mind what he/she wants to do as much as possible, it is important to see exactly how the worksite connects to this.
"Dissemination of purpose" regards changing the company and its culture. At an insurance company, where people are assets, it is important to regard how to evolve people in a favorable way. Insurance companies have a lot of operational parts. It is important to conduct operations correctly without making mistakes; but we need to consider how to upgrade our business while connecting the business with data, digitalization and new services — which can only be realized through people. So, against that backdrop, how many such capable people can be nurtured becomes an important factor.
However, it is not possible to do things related to one’s own personal culture overnight. These initiatives must be continued. While doing something to the extent that one's spark can light a fire in the mind of another, it is necessary to continue to develop people that understand the culture as much as possible. In this way, we must change our culture and become a growing organization where innovation occurs.
In promoting sustainability, what is most valuable in terms of leadership and beliefs?
RS: To say it strongly, it's "servant leadership." But doing it is kind of natural. Originally, the promotion of sustainable management is a team effort; and it can only be achieved via a team working together.
As an individual, I always think about how to enjoy my work. After all, work takes up a lot of our time — it’s painful if it's not fun! It may not always be fun, but the question is: How can you regard the work as fun, or position the work so that you find fun? I think it's interesting and very important to take on the challenge of promoting sustainable management — in what is now the first such undertaking at our company.