In an interview a week before he was formally announced as the president-designate of Toyota Motor Corp., Fujio Cho offered some hints about his preferences in style for a CEO.
'In Japan, there are strong and not so strong CEOs,' he said. 'In the current economic recession, CEOs with strong leadership are drawing more attention. Okuda-san and Dr. (Shoichiro) Toyoda have truly taken a more aggressive and active role. They were both men of action and good at making decisions. Do we need to go beyond that?
'If the leader is too strong, his subordinates can't speak up. A balance is important,' he said.
During his years building and running Toyota's Kentucky manufacturing complex, Cho showed an openness that allowed employees to speak up.
'He, in fact, is a teacher, and that's how he manages,' said John Shook, a former Toyota employee who worked with Cho on supplier development in Kentucky. Shook is now a member of the University of Michigan faculty.
'If someone brought him a problem, without fail, he'd communicate what he wanted to teach with a story. He'd sit back in a chair, look up at the ceiling and say, 'I remember one time with Mr. Ohno (Taiichi Ohno, creator of the Toyota Production System). Mr. Ohno said ...' '
Moreover, said Shook, 'He had a remarkable ability to relate to Americans. His English was not perfect but, despite that, he could relate very warmly. Mr. Cho was worshipped by many people at Georgetown.'
Former employees used to invite Cho to their homes to watch pay-per-view boxing matches. Today, when colleagues are heading to Japan, those people send along videos of major fights to pass along to Cho.