U.S.-Japan Working Mother Executive Dialogueーthe face of work and the face of motherhood


—"My advice to you is to be kind to yourself.”

1. The biggest challenge for women leaders is to be kind to themselves
2. Japan-U.S. comparison of balancing work and child-rearing; husbands' proactive participation needed
3. Being strong as a woman to have a better life for self and the son
4. A "safe environment" is important for increasing the number of women leaders
5. Choosing SheepMedical as next place to channel energy

—"My advice to you is to be kind to yourself.”

That's what Lea A. Ellermeier tells working mothers and women leaders. Lea A. Ellermeier who joined SheepMedical as its U.S. representative in October 2021, spoke to SheepMedical’s CAO, Tomoyo Umemoto, about how her experiences and perspectives as a working mother have helped her in building and managing her organization, having served as CEO and CXO of healthcare companies in the U.S. and Europe. Her words and management philosophy based on her actual experience brought Umemoto to tears at times. A highly recommended article to all women who want to balance their personal and professional lives.

1. The biggest challenge for women leaders is to be kind to themselves

Umemoto: What was the prominent challenge while you were raising a child and at the same time leading your business as a leader?

I think the biggest challenge for women in executive positions is to be kind to themselves. It is so easy to judge yourself, to say“I am not being a good enough mother, or I am not being a good enough executive.” Women in positions tend to be in constantly fighting with themselves and trying to be the best at everything. As a result, they stop being the best to themselves. So, I think it is very important to grant yourself grace. Give yourself permission to be imperfect.

Your words brought tears to my eyes. I feel like your words have hit the core of what I've been trying not to see.

Ellermeier: Yes, me too. If you are kind to yourself, your child will be just OK. What a child really needs is love and not a perfect mother.

I try to give as much love as I can to my son, but sometimes I find it very difficult to control my feelings.

Ellermeier: My son is now 23 years old. He tells the mothers of his friends how proud of me. He tells these moms how great I am and how I taught him to be independent.

I still can't imagine my 23-year-old son at all, but I hope such a day will come.

Ellermeier: You just have to do your best. On the days when you feel your best is not best enough, I promise you it is. The other thing is, don’t apology for being a mother. I believe being a mother makes me a better executive. Motherhood changes your perspective, and that new perspective brings value to the organization. I don’t see motherhood as a negative. I see it only as a positive. Being a mother made me more compassionate, it made me stronger, and it made me see the world in a different way. If I had to do it all over again, I would enjoy those moments with my sone without worrying so much about not giving that time to work.

2. Japan-U.S. comparison of balancing work and child-rearing; husbands' proactive participation needed

Ellermeier: Many women have worked for me over the years, and many were mothers. Together we created an environment where our children were welcome in the workplace. For an instance, in the U.S., if your child is sick and cannot go to school, or they have a holiday, but the mother must work, we had a room with toys and videos so that the mother can work in the room and the child could play and it was OK.
I think it is easier now with the Zoom so that mother can work from home while taking care of their children. But then, we did not have the Zoom. We honored the mother in the company. Because we knew by honoring the mothers, they would work hard for us if they felt they were valued. So, I think that is how you build a company where women feel valued and where mothers are welcome.

Umemoto: As a matter of fact, I don't think it's a good idea in Tokyo to have a day-care center in the workplace. In Japan, commuter trains are very crowded, and it is difficult to bring children to work. What is the situation in the U.S.?

Since we live in a car-oriented society, the hurdles to bringing children to work may be lower than in Japan.

Umemoto: My son won't sit in his car seat and gets out of control, so we can't go out in the car without two adults. Is this just my son?

Boys are busy. All over the place. The one thing that I did that was helpful when my son was small was I hired a nanny. That was not all the time but part of the time, and that helped. Because she also liked to clean. In the U.S., it is very common for working mothers to do all the work at home also. My husband was helpful, but I was primarily responsible for childcare Someone said to me once “Oh, is your husband babysitting your son?”. I said “Baby sitting? He is my husband’s baby too”.

Umemoto: I understand how you feel. It is the same situation in Japan. There seems to be a lack of awareness that husbands are not there to help, but to be co-responsible for childcare.
Ellermeier: I think it is better now than it was 20 years ago, but it is still an assumption that people have that all the mother is responsible, and husband helps.

3. Being strong as a woman to have a better life for self and the son

Umemoto: I often put my son to bed and then go back to work, but sometimes my son wakes up afterwards, and when he finds out that I'm not there, he cries and comes to my working room to look for me. I feel exhausted for some days.
It must have been tough for you to run a business while raising a child, but how did you manage to keep it going and where did your passion come from?

Ellermeier: I had that too early. I think that you will have challenges for a while but if you are kind to yourself, you will be OK. You will be just OK. Everything about a baby is a phase. Some phases feel like they will last forever, but every phase passes. Your son will get a little older and it changes. So, whatever is happening, right now, it is not forever. You have to remember that.
One of motivations that kept me going was that I wanted to create a better life for me and for my son. And I wanted to be seen by him as a strong woman. I remember there was a time when it was so hard. One day I was going to a board meeting, and I was running late. I was putting my son in the car, and he had a dirty. So, I needed to go inside and change it or leave him in the car with it to go to a babysitter. And I decided to be late for my board meeting and go inside and change it. And that’s when I knew that being a mother is more important than my job. You make those choices all the time. So, my other piece of advice is trying to get your husband to help you as much as possible but don’t be disappointed when it does not happen.

Umemoto: As we move forward with the SDGs, I feel that in order to increase the number of female leaders, it is more important to develop a mindset and culture than a system.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, once said, "Female employees are concerned about how they will work after maternity leave long before the reality sets in, but we want them to keep challenge themselves at work until the day they go on maternity leave". I think she was right. What do you think?

Ellermeier: I agree with that too. I think that we become afraid when we are about to have baby because our whole life is going to change, and we just don’t have any idea what it would be like. I remember before I had my son, I always seemed like I was busy, and after, I thought “Wow, what did I do with all of my time?” because when you have a baby, it consumes your time. I think what is important is for women to remember who they are in an evolving process. You become a mother, but that’s not all you are. You are still an executive and you are still a person you were before you got pregnant with that baby. I think it is not good for companies when all the women drop out of the work force because we don’t make it easy to be a working mother. I think we need the perspectives of women in a workplace and mothers in the workplace. So, we need to build a workplace that welcomes them and accommodates them.

Umemoto: In terms of stance on managerial decision-making, I feel that a large percentage of women think that it is none of their business. What do you think about this in terms of increasing the number of female leaders?

Ellermeier: I think you have to make it safe for them to take charge. If a woman feels vulnerable about making her opinion known, if she things that others would challenge her or attack her, it feels unsafe. So, it is easier to say nothing and not givean opinion even when that opinion has value. So, it is important to create an environment that makes it safe to offer opinions and say what you think. I think letting women in the company see you (Umemoto-san) in a strong position of leadership, is beautiful. Because they see a strong woman, at the top, and women can think “I can go there, and she shows me how I go there with her demeaner and behavior of how she works with all the men in the company”. You are leading by an example. That’s how you open the door. You show other woman that it is possible to be an executive and a motherI believe that by staying in your role as an executive, you will open the door for the next generation of women leaders who may be unsure that they can be both a strong executive and a good mother.

5. Choosing SheepMedical as next place to channel energy

Umemoto: Can you tell us the background of why you chose SheepMedical?

First of all, I was very interested in SheepMedical and impressed with the growth that SheepMedical had in Japan. I have been CEO for 18 years. I have not worked under somebody for long time, but I have a lot of experience of building this kind of company and I thought I could really make an impact at SheepMedical by bringing my experience into the company’s structure.
I was interested in many parts of SheepMedical too. Particularly, business in Japan focusing on helping doctors to build their practice was very interesting. I think that in the U.S. there are a lot of women dentists who need help building their practice. That could be an interesting point for SheepMedical in terms of marketing. I think that in the U.S. also no one is marketing the Hispanic population. I think that very focused marketing on product that is proven can help doctors to build their practice.
The other thing is that being a representative of the U.S. is a big challenge and I like big challenges. Also, my son graduated from a university and has a job living in California. So, my energy is available. My close friend said to me that “You need to put your mother energy into something else to grow and to protect”. So, I felt maybe it is SheepMedical.
Also, I was so impressed that SheepMedical wanted to talk to me as a woman. The recruiter that I spoke to said that only men had interviewed for the position before interviewing me. It is my understanding that most Japanese companies are usually male dominant, and it was unknown if they find me qualified. So, I was very impressed in fact that SheepMedical is very progressive and open minded, and the recruiter told me that SheepMedical has a kind of mindset that I was interested in recruiting the best people for their positions regardless if it is a man or a woman.

Umemoto: As a woman, I am very encouraged and happy to have Lea-san's participation.

—After Editor's note

Lea-san, who has been at the forefront of the business world, her tears and words, "If I had to start my life over again, I would spend it with my son without worrying about time," made me think that maybe I am spending precious time that I should treasure in my life. I was reminded of what I should cherish in my daily life, which I had lost sight of in the busyness. Even though there are days when I feel exhausted from the daily succession of choices of varying granularity and nature, I will continue to be strong and kind to myself, grateful for "what I am entrusted with, what I can do now, and what I already have".
(CAO Umemoto)

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