Employee-Designed Program Connects Mercari’s Members with Executive Mentors Outside Their Regular Reporting Lines

Make company executives accessible to employees as mentors outside regular reporting lines
for six months—that was the plan. We left the details, like how often mentors and mentees met and the content of individual mentorships, up to individual members.

Then in April of 2020, we rolled out the“Exec Mentoring Program.”

The company leadership and HR Business Partners (HRBPs) established the program aiming to make Mercari Group into a talent development-oriented organization. For about one hour a month over a period of six months, select members received mentorship from the executive of their choosing. Program participants naturally received feedback on their work, but also had the chance to consult their mentor about their career.

The mean satisfaction rate for our first Exec Mentoring Program, calculated from the answers to our participant survey, was 4.68 out of 5. But what was the program really like?

For this Mercan article, we sat down with three people who took part in the Exec Mentoring Program: members Kazuaki Takehara, (Merpay Data & ML Team), Maiko Hiyama, (Merpay AML & Fraud Ops [AFRO] Team), and their program mentor, Shintaro Yamada (Mercari’s Representative Director and CEO). What was it like for Kazuaki and Maiko to be mentored by Shintaro Yamada?

*Face masks were temporarily removed for photos.

Featured in this article

  • Kazuaki Takehara

    Kazuaki is an engineering manager on Merpay’s Data & ML Team. Having worked at Nomura Research Institute, Ltd. and Recruit Sumai Company Ltd. (merged with Recruit Co., Ltd.), his experience includes software engineering, data science, and project management. He joined Merpay in April 2019 and is now involved in managing three teams: Machine Learning, Data Platform, and Data Management.

  • Maiko Hiyama

    Maiko is a manager for the Merpay AML & FraudOps Team. Starting in 2001, she joined SFI Leasing Company, Limited, where she worked at a customer service/credit inspection center and was in charge of operations and training. In 2010, she began working for Livesense Inc., where she worked as manager of an HR website ‘s customer support/success/collections operation team. She then joined Merpay in April 2019. Today, she is mainly involved in organizational strategic management for the AML & Fraud Ops Team.

  • Shintaro Yamada

    Shintaro is Mercari’s Representative Director and CEO. After graduating from Waseda University, Shintaro established Unoh Inc., where he launched various internet services including “Movie Life,” “Photozou,” and “Machitsuku!” In 2010, he sold Unoh, Inc. to the mobile games company Zynga. After leaving Zynga in 2012, he went on a trip around the world. In February 2013, he established Mercari, Inc.

Why two Merpay employees chose CEO Shintaro Yamada as their mentor

Yamada: When we created this program, Mercari Group was implementing a number of initiatives to create an atmosphere where our members could grow, because we were aiming to make Mercari Group into a talent development-oriented organization. As a part of this initiative, we held what you could call talent development meetings. At these meetings we discussed the members recommended by each VP and talked about how great it would be to give those members certain opportunities. In other words, the meetings provided opportunities for us to decide on assignments and reassignments.

We continued to have meetings like that for about a year, and each time we met, I found myself surprised by the caliber of our members. I would actually say things like, “Mercari’s people are amazing!” (laughs) Since we knew we had such great people, we wanted to create a mentor program to give members an opportunity to grow even more; this then became the genesis of our “Exec Mentoring Program.”

Shintaro Yamada (Mercari Representative Director and CEO)

Yamada: The first thing I pondered was how do we match mentors with mentees? We wanted the program to meet the participating members’ wishes as closely as possible. Therefore, when it came to the frequency and content of the mentoring sessions as well as how they worked, we placed the focus on the wishes of the mentees. Additionally, we set out to broaden the mentees’ horizons by giving them a chance to speak with Execs who were not necessarily in the member’s regular reporting line. This meant making arrangements so that mentees could pair up with their choice of executive mentor. We then started round one in April 2020. Kazuaki and Maiko both requested me as their mentor.

I know I’ve asked you before, but why did you choose me as your mentor?

Takehara: Well, I chose you because you have the broadest view of Mercari Group’s businesses. My current work revolves around Merpay data, but I also like product creation. I wanted to have the opportunity to talk with you about the user experience, so I put you down as my first choice for a mentor. Or rather, you were the only person I put down as a mentor!

Kazuaki Takehara (Merpay Data & ML Team)

Hiyama: Like Kazuaki, I also work for Merpay, so I decided that if possible I wanted to be mentored by Mercari’s leadership.

Mercari and Merpay are both services that share the same the app. Since I am in charge of Merpay operations, my role is to think about how to get people to use our services. Given that you founded this company and have been around since the product’s inception, I thought that your background might hold some kind of clue that would get more people to use our services. That’s why I put down Shintaro Yamada as my first choice. I never dreamed that I would be accepted as your mentee, so I was completely blown away (laughs).

Maiko Hiyama (Merpay AML & Fraud Ops [AFRO] Team)

The most helpful advice: find the right people to talk to

Yamada: For the Exec Mentoring Program, we asked our members to set a goal by asking them how they hoped to change through mentoring. So what goals did the two of you set for yourselves?

Takehara: I had two goals: I wanted to be able to talk with my mentor about anything, and I wanted feedback on my work. I wanted my mentorship with you to offer something similar to my regular direct reporting line.

When I applied for the mentorship, I was preoccupied with what we should do about our data organization structures and Mercari/Merpay integration. The reason I was worried was because Mercari and Merpay each have their own data teams. Naturally, the two services supported each other, but there were situations where the load would be focused on one of the services and other situations where it wasn’t clear which team was responsible. I brought this question up, and the most helpful piece of advice I received from you was to find the right people to talk to. You recommended that I speak with Jeff, the Mercari VP of Analytics. Thanks to this piece of advice, I was able to divide up roles between our members and found a way of taking action while sharing my strategy with others.

Yamada: For roughly the past four years, Mercari Group has been working on data integration. From the very beginning, Jeff and I have been working together on shoring up and enhancing our data.

Data involves a lot of members including engineers, PMs, and people in marketing, to name just a few. Moreover, this process takes time, with us having to start by convincing everyone of the importance of data integration itself. Jeff at the time was building the analytics structure that we use now, while also laying the groundwork to convince people about data integration’s importance. Kazuaki’s work for Merpay is similar to what he was working on, so I figured it would be good for him to talk to Jeff about his experience.

Takehara: As soon as I received this piece of advice from you, I sent Jeff a DM that said, “Shintaro told me in a one-on-one that I should contact you. Can we set up a meeting?” (laughs) This was actually the first time I had ever talked to Jeff. So I have the advice I received from you to thank for the working relationship I now have with Jeff. I’m also creating our data roadmap for the data areas, and as you might expect, it’s no simple task.

Shintaro, I remember how you told me, speaking from your experience of creating the company-wide roadmap and OKRs for the entire Mercari Group, that “unless we figure out what kind of worldview we want to showcase to our users, our members won’t be able to get on board with it either.” You gave me advice by working backwards from an issue that I would likely face. When it comes to big-picture issues that affect the whole organization, there’s not much I can do on my own. But you gave me a lot of advice that I could put to use straight away, which I personally think was great.

Staying one step ahead with setting tasks using the knowledge acquired through mentoring

Yamada: And what about you, Maiko?

Hiyama: I set a somewhat ambitious goal for my mentorship: “Finalize an execution plan to try and solve the issues involved in my work.” I wanted to define those issues based on how you would see the situation, to the greatest extent possible. I figured I would grow more if I challenged myself. As a result, I was able to do three things: apply the content of our conversations to real-world actions, talk about how our conversations had a direct influence on the work I had set as my OKRs, and get feedback from you.

When I’m face to face with my daily work, sometimes I only manage to get through the plans for my most immediate tasks. Through my mentoring sessions with you, I feel like I am now able to properly understand how we are going to make Mercari and Merpay even more valued by users in the near future. This was the best part of the program for me.

Yamada: That’s great!

Hiyama: Kazuaki also touched on how a lot of your advice could be applied to real-life situations; I felt that way too. During my mentorship, when we discussed how to increase the quality of our operations, you said that AI and machine learning were indispensable and then slipped in the fact that Mercari was having a workshop, led by an external guest instructor, and asked if I wanted to join. I had been reading books and taking courses online, but studying under a pro and experiencing the material firsthand dramatically deepened my understanding.

Yamada: Last year, I also joined the workshop that I recommended to you. Although we use AI technology for tracking, we had never used it to write code. It was in this workshop that I myself learned what was possible, which was a good experience for me. So that’s why I suggested that you try taking the workshop yourself.

Hiyama: Based on the books and other resources I had studied, I reviewed our existing issues while I thought about what kind of technology we could use instead. However, you explained concretely how and what might not work based on your firsthand experience, and then you suggested some things I could try instead. Thanks to you, I learned to carefully define the focus of my work.

I want us to create an environment that people feel will allow them to grow more than anywhere else

Yamada: So tell me, now that you’ve tried the mentoring program, how was it?

Hiyama: I feel lucky for having had the chance to be mentored! Up until now I had only received feedback from my reporting line, so thanks to your advice, I feel like I’m working and making decisions twice as fast. Now that I’ve taken the Exec Mentoring Program, I think the biggest difference for me is that I can clearly move on bigger issues than before. Thank you!

Takehara: I’m glad I did this too! With mentoring, we were able to talk about more than my work, like the books and Netflix documentaries you recommended, as well as the fairness of data and algorithms—I’m really glad that we got to talk about actions that we can take that will serve society. We didn’t just talk about our business KPIs and profits. We both believed that although there are limits to what’s possible, we wanted to make Mercari a business that is accepted by society. I was relieved not to be told, “never mind all of that, just maximize our profits!” (laughs)

(All laugh together)

Yamada: Personally, I also think this project was great. You both embody “Be a Pro.” You listened to my feedback earnestly, and immediately put it into action. That made it all feel worthwhile to me. And what’s more, talking to people on the frontlines of the current Mercari Group, which is something I don’t get to do everyday, also showed me some of what you are experiencing. We’ve already started working on the second round of the mentor program, and this time we’ve increased the number of mentors. Going forward, we’ll support the growth of Mercari and Merpay’s members, and continue working to make the Mercari Group into an organization that nurtures the development of its talent.

Yamada: …And since I’ve said all of this, it might actually surprise you to know that actually, I don’t really like the word “nurture.”

Takehara and Hiyama: Really?

Yamada: I find the word “nurture” a little condescending.

By its very nature, growth is something you do by yourself. As a corporate entity, Mercari Group wants to create an environment where its members can grow, but I don’t feel like “nurturing” is the most appropriate word to describe this. To put it simply, we could always hire more people to increase our capabilities. However, we could just as well increase what we do as a business by growing the abilities of the members who now work at Mercari and Merpay. Nothing’s better than working someplace where you can truly feel yourself grow as a professional. This is why I want us to create a workplace that people feel will allow them to grow more than anywhere else. I’m still looking for the right words to describe this process.

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