To survive in today’s ever-changing business climate, Toyota must think and work across social and physical boundaries. Team members must find ways to collaborate and learn from each other. This makes good business sense. Women bring their own unique strengths to this challenge. Creating a North American women’s conference was an opportunity to gather women together with the goal of building relationships while providing opportunities for development and gathering insights from joint thinking.
It started with two separate business partnering groups from across the country that shared a common goal—the pursuit of professional development of women at Toyota. Renee Robertson, manager, accounting & finance at Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, and Debbie West, national technology manager, representing Toyota Motor Sales and Toyota Financial Services, began a journey to create the first Toyota North American Women’s Conference. At Toyota, things get done through a process of “nemawashi,” quietly sharing ideas with others to gain understanding, including input, and ultimately obtaining approval. Working with the advisory council teams of both organizations, they put together a business case and walked it around the company. This process took several months, but was well worth it. Everyone was supportive and had solid contributions.
With support from executive management, they were ready to get started. As council members on their respective employee resource groups (TORQUE! at Toyota Motor Sales (TMS)/Toyota Financial Services (TFS) and Women’s Leadership Forum at Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America) they began to gather volunteers. Together they created a project plan and formed teams made up of associates with a diverse set of talents. Help was needed at all levels—logistics, facilities, marketing, project management, as well as a sprinkling of innovation.
The goal remained clear: Create an event that was inspirational and engaging, where learning could be brought back into the workplace to help Toyota across North America. It would not be just a sit-and-listen conference. For inspiration, the team requested Susan Molinari, board member of Toyota’s Diversity Advisory Board, to deliver a keynote focusing on women in North America, the automotive industry, and how Toyota women can impact the future for their daughters. To help with engagement, they assembled an executive panel for lunch and asked the presidents of both TMS and TFS to close out the day. The team also created breakout sessions to debate and gather everyone’s voice.
After all the planning and a couple of bumps (including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which postponed the conference from May to October to allow the company to focus on the crisis), the team was ready for the conference. The planning team created a warm, inviting, and engaging environment. Nearly 100 Toyota team members filtered in from 16 different affiliates across North America. It was a pilot for Toyota, so the invite list was small. As the date neared and the word got out, women from across the company were trying to find out how to get a ticket. On the day of the event, people showed up at the door to see if they could attend. From the moment they arrived, the room was filled with a buzz one could not help but notice.
The day went by fast. Executives from across North America shared their experiences and challenged everyone to be present and engaged, and to become the next generation of leaders. The breakout sessions let attendees share thoughts and help define future activities on three important topics:
- Mentoring: Creating informal mentoring opportunities
- Leadership: Finding collaboration opportunities between members of TORQUE! and the Women’s Leadership Forum
- Moving Toyota Forward: Engaging the talent and passion of associates cross-functionally to meet challenging business goals
To keep the spirit of the conference going and to carry the ideas into the next year, both men and women signed up for action teams. Three action teams were formed to work on each topic. To close out the day, everyone relaxed at the reception and reflected on the day with new friends.
The entire conference exemplified the theme: “Toyota Women Leading Change.” Everyone left the conference energized and ready to be the change in Toyota.
In the spirit of the Toyota Way’s continuous improvement pillar, the planning committee conducted Lessons Learned sessions to capture what went well and what could be improved for the next time, including looking for ways to expand the group for next year. As the lessons learned are being gathered and the action teams are kicking off, the planning team is revising the business case and beginning the nemawashi for the next conference.
Read more about how Toyota and other companies are leveraging the power of women in The Power of Women’s Employee Resource Groups: The Business Case, Trends, and Best Practices for Women’s Advancement.