Susan Elkington, 49
President, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Toyota Motor North America
Location: Georgetown, Ky.
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, University of Evansville
What drew you to the auto industry? I was at another company and was doing well when Toyota announced [its plant in Princeton, Ind.], which was 40 miles from my hometown. My company was already working with the Toyota Production System, so I thought I would try to work for Toyota directly, and I got hired a year before the plant opened as an engineer. I always say the industry sort of found me.
First automotive job: I started at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana in 1998 as an assembly engineering specialist.
Big break: I’ve had three, really. The first was when my mentor came to me and encouraged me to rotate from engineering into production to get experience as a supervisor, and I discovered that I absolutely love production. The second was about five years later, when I raised my hand to take a rotation from general assembly to body-building stamping. And the third was an opportunity to take a three-year assignment at our headquarters in Japan, where I became one of only a few foreign division managers, head of a whole division, and the first female with an opportunity to support 53 manufacturing plants around the world as the production control general manager.
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What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? It’s really realizing what I don't know. I was very happy being an engineer and never really saw myself doing anything else but engineering. But when someone taps me on the shoulder and suggests I could be good at something else, it’s really taking on that opportunity, gaining confidence and being successful. But going to work at headquarters in Japan was also a major challenge because I had never worked in that environment before.
You’ve been in the industry 22 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The shift in technology in our products and our manufacturing. This has increased the variation on products and options, the flexibility in our processes and the speed of change. These changes have also opened the door for a different type of workplace and work force. The workplaces are cleaner, less physical and value different skill sets. The importance of critical thinking and technical skills are more important than ever in all positions within our manufacturing organization.
What work achievement are you most proud of? One of our primary jobs is to continue to develop the next generation of leaders. And it was an unbelievable opportunity that I worked with Leah [Curry] at TMMI in body weld. She and I kept getting promoted at the same time, but I went to my boss and said that I needed to move because Leah needs to soar. And she did. She made president before I made president. That is, to me, one of the best work accomplishments that you can have — seeing others succeed.
What do you struggle with? Finding the time to make certain that I’m constantly pushing myself to learn so that I can create a better vision for our organization. It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and fighting today’s fires. But you really do have to take time and make sure that you’re benchmarking and looking out and talking to people and really spending some time to see where you want the organization to go.
Describe your leadership style. I try to be very focused on transformational and informational. My role has been to set a vision of where we need to go, not necessarily exactly how we get there. And secondly, to inspire and remove the roadblocks that keep people in our organization from soaring to their highest, because I don’t have all the best ideas all of the time.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? The importance of the relationships that you have with people and taking the time to communicate and taking, more importantly, the time to listen.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I wish I would have spoken up more for other females in the industry earlier. Early on, we are all focusing just on how to do our best and maybe not [differentiating ourselves] as female. Early on in my career, I had a very short haircut and wore no makeup and really just tried to blend into the organization. As I gained confidence in myself, I was more willing to be outspoken about those minor things. Female engineers are often placed in systems positions or project managers, which are coordinator positions, but then they don’t get the technical training that’s necessary, which sometimes limits them on the technical side of the operations.
— Larry P. Vellequette