Now, Toyoda is rewarding Pratt's persuasiveness — and outside-the-box thinking — by promoting the artificial intelligence guru to a newly created position of "fellow" at the parent company.
His promotion last week exemplifies sweeping management changes unveiled as Toyoda sounded one of his most dire warnings yet about the rapidly changing industry: His namesake company is locked in a "now or never" race "about surviving or dying" in the new era.
The shuffle aims to inject new expertise into Toyota by elevating experts such as Pratt and by tightening ties with Toyota Group companies to cross-fertilize technologies.
The overhaul also encourages new perspectives by elevating a woman to a top leadership role at the Lexus brand and promoting more non-Japanese leaders at executive levels.
The fellow position shares the same status as executive vice president, just one rung below the president himself. The title is reserved for the "ultimate level of technical expertise" within the company, a spokesman said, and meant to give freer hand to creativity and talent.
Pratt is the company's first fellow; others are expected to be added later, Toyota said.
"Over the next 100 years, there is no guarantee that automobile manufacturers will continue to play leading roles in mobility," Toyoda said in a statement outlining the personnel moves. "A crucial battle has begun — not one about winning or losing, but one about surviving or dying."
Toyota's management shuffles traditionally happen in the spring.
But Toyota pulled the moves forward to react faster to changing times. Looking ahead, the company said it will rearrange personnel as needed, without sticking to a rigid calendar.
The latest changes take effect Jan. 1 and build on a new structure Toyoda introduced last year.
To speed decision-making and unleash creativity, Toyoda broke the Japanese parent company into subcompanies empowered to act as self-contained units. The goal is to replicate the streamlined operations of the Silicon Valley startups triggering so much angst.
"This is an era in which the correct answers are unknown," Toyoda said. "This change includes the appointment of people with high levels of expertise, regardless of time with the company or age and from the perspective of having the right people in the right places."
Added Toyoda: "We need to have people who understand the workplace well enough to lead with quick judgment, quick decisions and quick action."