Julia Wada, 57
Group Vice President Strategy, Innovation and Transformation, Toyota Financial Services
Location: Plano, Texas
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, University of California, Berkeley; MBA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
What drew you to the auto industry? Having a chance to work on a product that people really care about personally, that makes a big difference in their personal lives. I previously worked in aerospace and so I wanted to move out of defense and work on a consumer product, and what better one than a car?
First automotive job: My first automotive job was with Toyota Motor Sales in January 1991. I joined right out of graduate school. I had just gotten my MBA and Toyota had just started an MBA rotational program, the Graduate Management Associate Program. I was in the second cohort; that’s how I got in. I thought I would be with the company for a couple of years, and now I’m here 30 years later.
Big break: The first was when I moved from Toyota Motor Sales to Toyota Financial Services. That was a big change, and it allowed me to build the strategy function for a growing company. The second was when I was promoted to head of human resources. I had no HR background but it was one of the best jobs I ever had. It opened my eyes to a lot of things that I hadn’t really paid attention to before and that has shaped everything I’ve done since then.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? One of the biggest challenges was leading the transition of our company from California to Texas. I was responsible for human resources and information technology at the time, and I was given a responsibility to lead the team for TFS to manage our transition. It was difficult because it wasn’t just the business that was moving; we were asking people to make a huge change in their lives, uprooting their families and deciding whether they wanted to move with the company.
You’ve been in the industry 30 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? I think right now it’s the most exciting, important change in the industry — the way that technology is changing everything, including customer expectations. Every aspect of the competitive profile of our industry is changing, and it’s changing fast, plus you have COVID and other crises going on at the same time.
What work achievement are you most proud of? I’m most proud of the culture and capability that we built at TFS in our HR function. When I started, we really didn’t have performance management and we didn’t have any of the basics of HR. It was a great opportunity to come in and really build a team, but more importantly, build out a function and a capability that could work for the organization as it grew into a world-class financial services company. We focused on people and on their development.
What do you struggle with? One of my strengths is that I’m a learner, and that’s been great in terms of helping me in my career. I’ve been able to grow and develop and go into areas that I didn’t have a background in. But on the backside of that is, there is always more to learn. What I’ve had to learn to do is draw the line in terms of things, like, when am I going to stop working? Or when am I going to stop looking into something? It’s something I have to manage.
Describe your leadership style. I would say I’m a strategic, collaborative leader. There’s very little at Toyota that you can accomplish by yourself that’s big and meaningful or impactful. It’s always with others, and I’m a big believer in the value of a diverse team coming together to accomplish great things.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? It’s really shown how our people have embraced change, and how they’ve just stepped up wherever we needed them. It was tremendous to see, especially in the beginning when we were supporting our customers and our dealers through that initial really tough period. It was all hands on deck, from all over the company. It inspired and helped me understand just how quickly we can get something done, especially in times of crisis. That’s something that’s one of our strengths at Toyota.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I always tell people to do a better job with your relationship building and maintaining throughout your career. I think you can always do better, and I certainly could have.
What’s the best part of your day? Interacting with people. I’m at a point in my career where my job is really to create the environment for other people to be able to do their best, and I really enjoy seeing people grow and do things they never thought they could do.
— Larry P. Vellequette