How a “Nobody” Like Me Can Continue to Take On New Challenges──#LeadersVoices Vol. 3: Yoko
At Mercari, we promote various initiatives with the aim of providing equal opportunities and appropriate support so that anyone can demonstrate our company values, regardless of their background.
Gender equality is one of the SDGs, and the realization of a diverse organization based on our Diversity & Inclusion Statement is deeply interwoven with the mindset behind Mercari Group’s mission, “Circulate all forms of value to unleash the potential in all people.”
In this third installment of our series “Creating New Value: Amplifying the Voices of a New Wave of Leaders,” we are joined by Yoko Imoto (@yoko) for an in-depth discussion on the importance of dialogue, which has always been a key part of her management career, as well as the difficulties of balancing work and childcare and how she overcame them.
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Yoko ImotoYoko graduated from Keio University, Faculty of Law, Department of Law. In 2002, she joined Deutsche Bank Group, where she worked in investment banking. In 2004, Yoko joined Lazard Frères, working in M&A advisory in Tokyo and New York. Then, in 2006, she joined Oriental Land Co., where she was involved in management strategy, business development, and product development, among other things. In May 2018, Yoko joined Merpay, Inc. Since July 2021, she has been working on management strategy at Mercari.
My challenge as a “nobody”—bringing happiness to people
──To start things off, I know that your career before joining Merpay in 2018 included working for a foreign securities company and a theme park company, so I want to ask you: how have you chosen your career path to this point?
I have always made choices about my career based on my ability to take on new challenges. New challenges are always surprising, fun, and allow me to grow.
I also want to bring happiness to people through my work. Therefore, regardless of what my role is or what method I employ, it is important to me that I am involved in work that will bring something positive to people’s lives.
I realized that this was something I wanted to pursue through my work when I received some advice from a friend while I was looking for my first job out of university. At the time, I was unsure of what I wanted to do, and I was discussing my career path with a teammate from a club I was in. I remember them saying, “You should try thinking about it from the viewpoint of being okay with being a nobody.” These words got me thinking: “If I start with the premise that I’m a nobody, then I should begin my career in a place where I can learn from scratch.” So I chose to look for work at foreign securities firms because I thought it would be a great challenge for me. I may have been a bit naive back then, but that way of thinking allowed me to work really hard and with a lot of passion.
Looking back on it now, those words of advice from my friend made it much easier for me to separate myself from my feelings— under the premise of being a nobody, I met each new challenge head-on and accumulated knowledge and experience. In doing so, I eventually started to think that one day I might get a chance to make someone or something happy.
Commemorative photo taken at the Merpay launch party in 2019
──In your past managerial work, what have you found most rewarding and appealing as a leader?
Although I am currently stepping away from the managerial work to take on challenges in a new field, I believe that being a manager is a really rewarding job. It is motivating for me to watch my team members grow and develop, and I am more than willing to give my own time for that purpose.
Communication with my team members in particular is something that I value. I always held 1on1s with them at least once a week, but sometimes I would have more than one per week, or a single session might last longer than was originally scheduled. I tried to turn negatives into positives by focusing on listening during 1on1s, sharing feelings with team members, and working with them to resolve issues that they were having trouble putting into words.
──You said that listening is something on which you place a lot of value. Could you tell me why that is?
I believe that, as a leader, rather than forcibly pulling the team in a certain direction, it’s better to play the role of motivator and push your individual team members to grow. I think this leads to better team results. Especially for tasks that require a lot of brainstorming, we can come up with better ideas together rather than if just one person comes up with the plan alone—new ideas are born through conversation.
I have never thought of myself as being particularly good at listening, but I always try to focus on the person in front of me and give them my full attention. Especially when listening to a team member’s problems, I go in with the assumption that there is always a background to the problem and that I can only imagine at most 10–20% of what is going on. When a person is distressed, they may not have the luxury of time, or they may not be able to see other perspectives. When I work together with them to dig deep and break down those fears and anxieties, we sometimes find that, actually, there is no need to feel anxious. As they put their concerns into words and confide in me, they are often able to come up with a solution on their own.
Yoko Imoto (@yoko)
Don’t think assume things about your team members—treat them as the unique individuals that they are and continue to maintain an open dialogue with them
──In creating an organization that is welcoming to diversity, what are some of the challenges that you see or areas that you think we should focus on?
I do feel that the language barrier can still hinder facilitation in situations where Japanese and English speakers are mixed. At Mercari, both Japanese and English are used on a daily basis, and although we have the Global Operations Team (GOT), our in-house translators and interpreters, there are many cases in which meetings have to be held without GOT support. When that happens, there is sometimes this doubt over whether or not everyone is understanding the material at the same level—the background and everything. Are we really having a meaningful conversation?
What I try to do to solve these issues is to increase the amount of communication. In order to truly understand the content of a conversation, I want to understand the “background behind the background.” So my first goal is to increase the overall amount of communication I’m having with my members. For example, I noticed recently that I have a slight personal bias toward thinking that native English speakers tend to jump straight to the conclusion, but in having many conversations with many individuals, I have noticed that this is not always the case. If you really think about it, it only makes sense that each person is going to have their own communication style—the same is true of Japanese people.
The important thing is that you don’t assume anything about your team members—each one is a unique individual. Everyone has unconscious bias, so I really believe that we should be more open to truly listening to others, not always assuming we know the right answer.
Life is an adventure—live one that you are happy with and can enjoy!
──Was there ever a time in your career where you were having a lot of difficulty or you hit a wall?
This may be a fairly common concern, but I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to be a specialist or a generalist. Actually, even right after I joined Merpay I still wasn’t completely sure about what I wanted to do.
I had originally joined Merpay because the company’s mission of “Building trust for a seamless society” resonated with me, but as I was involved in a wide range of work as a generalist, I sometimes lost sight of how I was personally contributing to that mission. I often found myself feeling envious of specialists who had their own areas of expertise, like accounting, legal, PR, or engineering. For about a year I was just trying to find my way through the fog in my own head and figure out what I wanted to do and what I was able to do.
The turning point for me came when I participated in the Mentor Program that was that was implemented at Merpay at the time. My mentor was an auditing specialist. They were very frank about what they wanted and how they wanted to do their job, and that left a big impression on me. In contrast, I am not very particular about the type of work I do—I’m the kind of person who is fine with anything as long as I can do work that brings happiness to others. That experience really highlighted the difference between my mindset and my mentor’s.
Through dialogue with my mentor, I was able to organize my thoughts and reaffirm my desire to be a person who can both produce results and bring happiness to people’s lives, but without deeply pursuing a specialty or being attached to a specific role. Sometimes, generalist roles can get stereotyped as “jack-of-all-trades” roles, but I have come to see it positively as an “I-can-do-anything” kind of role. Since then, I have been able to put myself in environments that allow me to take on new challenges, and I am really enjoying my work.
In terms of other challenges I faced… let’s see… Well, this was a long time ago, but I guess one other thing I could mention would be balancing work and raising children.
There were two main things that I felt were difficult about this. The first thing is that I felt constrained at work. Because my husband was away for most of every month on business trips, I was the only person who could look after our kids. So when they were sick, I was the one who had to take a day off. As a company, Mercari is very understanding of its members who are working while raising children, but even so I was dealing with certain things that left me unable to take on some assignments. To be honest, this was incredibly frustrating for me. But I was able to change my perspective by thinking, “this is just temporary, I just have to be patient until my kids get a bit older.” I got through this time by considering what I could be doing or thinking to keep my body and mind healthy.
The other thing is that I was constantly mentally and physically exhausted from being so busy and sleepy. I had to cook for my two children who were constantly crying and upset, so I was always trying to come up with new ways of solving these issues. One good idea I came up with was to gather other mothers who were in the same situation to spend time together. Together, we were able to overcome our common problems by creating a community where we cooked and ate dinner together at night. Our group had three mothers and six children; one mom would be responsible for looking after the children while the other two cooked. This turned a potentially difficult time into an enjoyable night.
Sometimes, Yoko and other Mercari members got together with their families for what Yoko called “Mercari Solo-Parenting Club”!
What was your approach to your own career in the midst of trying to balance work with raising your children?
For my own career, it’s important for me to leverage what I have learned from work—things that excited me or new discoveries—in order to make society and the people around me happy.
Life isn’t some unilateral game of simply climbing or falling, it’s more like a game of backgammon where you can move forward, stop moving (rest) for a while, skip two spaces, or sometimes even go backward. While it is important to aim for and achieve goals, we should value the process of getting there just as much.
If we can say that life is an adventure, why can’t we view work the same way? There are no set goals that everyone must achieve, and for every shortcut that may exist to your destination, there are myriad other paths that you can carve out for yourself. For example, if your next move in life is to raise kids, then it’s probably okay to take a couple of years off work! (laughs) So, to answer your question, the approach I have taken to my own career has been prioritizing the choices that make sense to me, while enjoying the adventure that is life and work.
──Finally, as a person who has made corporate D&I her mission, and has built a career through interaction and dialogue with others, is there anything you would like to share with the next generation of leaders so that they can enjoy their work and, by extension, their lives?
Don’t be influenced by the voices or the environment around you—learn to really listen to your own heart. You only live once, so set positive expectations for yourself and enjoy the entire process of achieving your goals.