Japanese firm allows young workers to pick their own bosses

A structural design firm in Hokkaido has tackled high employee turnover by giving young workers the freedom to pick their own boss. Officials say the idea has fostered a culture in which both supervisors and subordinates can put their strengths to best use.

Sapporo-based architectural practice Sakura Kozo specializes in earthquake-proof designs. It has about 120 employees. Five years ago, turnover among staff was as high as 11 percent, and in particular, there was a serious turnover of young employees.

But officials have brought the figure down to just 0.9 percent with an innovative "supervisor choice system" introduced in 2019.

Architectural firm Sakura Kozo previously struggled to hold on to young employees.

Workers who have been at the company at least one full year can choose which of seven supervisors they would like to work under. The changes take place annually.

Supervisors value detailed assessments

To make the process easier, the supervisors have their relative strengths and weaknesses evaluated and presented in detailed reports.

Supervisors are assessed on their strengths and weaknesses.

There are 14 criteria, such as "consideration of a subordinate's anxieties" and "helping to improve people's skills."

The scoring aims to be as balanced as possible. The supervisors first provide a self-assessment. Other employees also chime in with their views, before the company president signs off with a final evaluation.

The unflinching nature of the reports has raised a few eyebrows. But staff believe the idea is largely for the greater good.

The reports can be seen by all employees.
Supervisors' characteristics are candidly listed, including their weaknesses, and how to get the most from them.

"I do think it's a little harsh to put a cross against anyone," says one 23-year-old in his second year at the firm. "But it's for the benefit of the employees. Having something quantifiable makes it easier to choose."

A 45-year-old supervisor admits it can be a little challenging at times. "But we do our best to make sure we get selected."

A 23-year-old worker, left, and a 45-year-old supervisor

The company had long struggled with high employee turnover, but one case in which a young man quit because he didn't get along with his supervisor became the turning point.

"He showed real promise," says Sakura Kozo President Tanaka Shinichi. "And I felt terrible about losing him. It was painful for the company.

"This industry has few job applicants, and turnover was a major issue, so we decided to act."

Sakura Kozo President Tanaka Shinichi

President pushes for a change in mindset

Seismic design work leaves no room for error, and the pressure can be high. Tanaka understands that the firm's supervisors often need to be strict, but he still wanted to realize a broad change in mindset.

Five years on, it's clear the idea has paid off. New hires are not only staying put, they're also performing better.

Kadota Tabito, 32, has been with the company for seven years. His current boss is 45-year-old Yamamoto Kensuke, who is rated highly for his ability to provide support and reassurance.

"When I get anxious, my hands seize up," says Kadota, who chose to work for Yamamoto because he felt comfortable discussing his concerns and finding solutions.

Kadota Tabito, right, chose Yamamoto Kensuke as his boss.

On the other hand, Yamamoto's process management is said to have room for improvement. But that's prompted Kadota to take the initiative by managing the team's schedule and following up on other tasks with his supervisor.

"I now think about how I can compensate for his relative weaknesses," says Kadota. "I pursue responsibility, and I feel that's helped my personal growth."

Kadota Tabito and Yamamoto Kensuke

As for Yamamoto, he now has a little more room to breathe.

"I used to try hard to improve my weak areas. But after altering my perspective a little, things have become so much easier. I realize that my subordinates have chosen me based on their knowledge of both my strengths and weaknesses. And that allows me to leave certain tasks to others."

Japan is in the grip of a chronic labor shortage, and securing young talent is a challenge. But more and more companies are finding innovative solutions.

Young jobseekers choose interviewers

Tokyo-based Nyle, which provides digital marketing and other services, is another example. Company officials have started allowing new applicants to choose one from among 20 staff members to conduct their first round of job interviews.

New graduates seeking a job at Nyle can select an interviewer online.

The jobseekers can read about the interviewers in advance. Their profiles include snippets of information such as "most rewarding moment at work" and hobbies.

Senior university student Aoshima Ryoto, 22, was impressed. "Choosing an interviewer helped me to convey my own attributes and better understand the company's appeal. I felt at ease."

Aoshima is now set to join Nyle next year.

University student Aoshima Ryoto

Win-win for companies and individuals

One expert on working styles says if such initiatives are well utilized, they can create growth for both the company and the employee.

"Allowing young people to choose their bosses or interviewers encourages them to think and act independently about how they want to work and what kind of career they want to build," says Furuya Shoto, a senior researcher at Recruit Works Institute.

"Ultimately, this results in the acquisition and development of good human resources. It's not so much a question of who you choose, but why."

Recruit Works Institute senior researcher Furuya Shoto