Kristen Tabar, 50
Group Vice President, Vehicle Development and Engineering, Toyota Motor North America
Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Education: B.S., electrical engineering, University of Michigan
What drew you to the auto industry? I never really thought I was going to work in the auto industry, but in high school and college, I got really interested in sound and that type of technology. I had the opportunity to join Toyota as an audio engineer.
First automotive job: I started at Toyota in 1992 as a design engineer in our audio systems area.
Big break: My first big break was getting a job at Toyota. I never expected that I was going to be able to do something that I had a real interest in or really enjoyed doing as a real full-time job. I had visions of something totally different with engineering. But that’s the interesting thing about automotive: the ability to have an idea and then see it become a real thing that a lot of people will use in a very short amount of time. It’s kind of crazy when you can design and develop and launch something and it’s used in 2 million products a year.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? A decade ago when Toyota was facing the unintended-acceleration recall crisis, I was asked to step in as the technical spokesperson for the company. I had to testify, and I did a lot of public and media interviews to try and help the company explain what was really going on with the vehicles. It was a media firestorm, and consumers were losing their trust and confidence in the company. It was a very tough time, and I felt like we just weren’t responding correctly initially, and I got an opportunity to try and help customers work through that and get the real information out there. As a company, we really learned a lot from that crisis.
You’ve been in the industry 28 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The biggest change is the shift of the automotive industry to mobility. This idea represents a once-in-100-year change. It opens up various personal mobility solutions and products but also much more. There are opportunities to change how products are moved and delivered as well as how information is gathered, shared and used. These changes represent a chance for customers to seamlessly and naturally interact with the environment, businesses and services, and people. It’s an opportunity for great innovation and I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be a part of the industry.
What work achievement are you most proud of? I was in charge of the transition for research and development when we reorganized our North American operations and most of the company moved to Plano. It was a big opportunity for us to really step back and look at how we could reform our work, our culture, our organization and our basic daily processes to make them even better. I’m really proud that I could work through that. It gave us the foundation for what’s happening right now, this huge transition from a kind of pure automotive company to a broader mobility tech company.
Describe your leadership style. When there’s a problem, when there’s something that needs to get done, I like everybody to pitch in, including myself. Let’s get some good ideas, let’s get to it and let’s get things done. It’s important to have a lot of different ideas and a lot of different perspectives, and really understand those, and put them on the table and think them through. I like to push the decisions and the responsibility and the accountability down as low as I can in the organization, and then be there for support.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? While our culture has been based on going to see issues for yourself, or gemba, as the Japanese call it, we’ve learned that we really can’t ignore that there are a lot of efficiencies that can be gained through some of these remote work technologies. In the past, there wasn’t enough pressure on us to think about that type or style of work, and so it really did sort of handcuff us to our desks a bit and to have some long days to complete certain tasks. I think this has forced us to really study and understand that there are ways to get things done that don’t always require you to be in the office for endless hours.
— Larry P. Vellequette