Executive Insider: Chris Reynolds

TMNA’s Chief Administrative Officer on challenging new roles, starting your impossible and the key to being a strong leader.

August 07, 2019

There’s a pretty decent chance Chris Reynolds is your boss.
 
His background is in legal – serving as Toyota’s Chief Legal Officer for several years – but in the last five years, Reynolds has taken on a wide array of new challenges that have expanded his responsibilities well beyond that.
 
As TMNA’s Chief Administrative Officer, Manufacturing and Corporate Resources, Reynolds oversees Human Resources, Accounting and Finance, Government Affairs, Corporate Communications, Corporate Strategy, Social Innovation/Diversity and Inclusion, Legal and, as of the beginning of this year, Manufacturing.
 
It’s that last one – manufacturing – that really caught our eye. Reynolds made his mark as a lawyer – including a stint in the Southern District of New York before coming to Toyota in 2007 – but he had no previous experience with manufacturing, save for growing up with a stepfather who worked the line at the Ford River Rouge plant in Detroit.
 
So, we sat down with Reynolds, and asked him about leadership, manufacturing, tariffs and starting his impossible. To watch some highlights, see above. For an in-depth read, scroll down.
 
Driver’s Seat: You've had a really interesting, successful career…
 
Chris Reynolds: …Thank you…
 
So far…
 
So far, yeah. Knock on wood, yes. There's plenty of opportunity for failure, let's put it that way.
 
Well, I think it can only get better. A year ago, was manufacturing something that you wanted on your plate?
 
I had no idea, no clue. The answer is no. So, when I was told that manufacturing was going to be my next assignment, it was a surprise. Here's what was explained to me: My role in Legal was one that I've been trained for and had in my background from the beginning of my career, even outside of Toyota. I think the perception of Akio Toyoda – because Akio makes these decisions – was that Toyota is about human development, team member development, and that includes senior executives. So, I needed to do something challenging to help me develop and that could be beneficial to the company.
 
The More You Know -- TMNA's Chief Administrative Oficer Chris Reynolds counts his relatively new role as the head of manufacturing as one of the most valuable learning experiences of his career. 

What have you learned since you've become the head of manufacturing?
 
Manufacturing is the simplest, most complex business I've ever come across. The components and variables that go into manufacturing are relatively simple, but the how-to and the fact that on any given day, something can happen that throws those constants out of whack, that's what makes it complex.
 
The other thing I've learned is that we have a secret sauce that is unique to Toyota, and that is we empower team members on the line to improve our processes. A lot of the improvements and breakthroughs that I've seen in each of our plants come from the mind of team members who work on that process every day. They own it. That's our edge. We can never lose that.
 
Start your impossible. What does it mean to you?
 
Start your impossible means not accepting limits that are put on you by others, or even by yourself, and recognizing that the most important ingredient to success is your own attitude. When you look at the history of Toyota, you would consider it impossible that a loom-making company could transfer its knowledge and expertise to making cars that have the highest quality, durability and reliability in the world. That's impossible.
 
But Akio Toyoda's grandfather started that and was able to envision something bigger, broader and better than being a loom maker. To me it means, again, not accepting those limits and recognizing the biggest obstacle to achieving something is usually your own sense of limits, your own attitude about whether or not you'll succeed.
 
Is there a specific thing in your mind about what your impossible is?
 
Sure, running manufacturing.
 
How about an issue here, how do we respond to the threat of auto tariffs and the designation of imported vehicles being a threat to national security?
 
Where do I begin on this? Let's start with the threat to national security. It's not just the imported vehicles that were designated as a threat to national security, it's the foreign-headquartered auto companies that are a threat to national security, and that's just completely ludicrous. And it's an insult to every Toyota team member here in North America that works so hard to produce the most wonderful cars that represent nearly 70 percent of our units in operation. We employ 475,000 people directly and indirectly in this country. And they are a threat to national security? That’s absolute bull. I think that it's our job is to make that clear. We're actually the guarantors of national security, we're not a threat to it.
 
The reality of tariffs is: no matter whether they're used as a bargaining chip in an immigration dispute or as a way of adjusting a perceived trade imbalance, tariffs are taxes on the consumer. Any company – any manufacturer – will ultimately have to pass on the burden of those tariffs to the consumer who buys the product, and you don't have to be an economist to understand that when that happens, consumers are going to be less likely to buy because the cost has gone up. Then that has an impact, a negative one, on the economy.
 
I think we just have to recognize that no matter what the reason for the tariffs, no matter how well intentioned they are, they're going to be a drag on the economy. My worry is also history is full of tariffs that have been imposed for one reason or another, but rarely are they rolled back. I'm glad to see that the aluminum and steel tariffs have been rolled back, that's an exception. I'd prefer that we not even go down that road. That's really been our consistent position as Toyota, year in and year out.
 
Shared Valued -- Reynolds is proud to represent Toyota's values. Case in point, welcoming Hurricane Harvey victim Sylvia Garcia back home after SBP, AmeriCorps and other volunteers helped rebuild her home. 

When I first got here someone said it's really hard to get fired from here. I thought that was just a joke. Now that I look at it I realize how much empowerment that gave me, knowing that I'll be allowed to fail. Therefore, I can try to do things that maybe won't work out, but I'm going to try to do them.
 
I can show you the way. But it's what you just said, which is you have the room to fail. Now our challenge is we say that, but we need everybody being aggressive in their thinking where they really do think, I can start my impossible and it's OK to fail as long as I try and push the organization. We still have a long way to go. This is a company where it's actually OK to get out of your comfort zone. Exhibit A, right? I'm out of my comfort zone.
 
Mr. Manufacturing over there.
 
Yep. It's OK to do that. More of us ought to do more of that. Simply because the company sees value in people developing in areas where you're not familiar. I want everybody to do that.
 
Being allowed to fail is such a huge gift, because I fail constantly.
 
Join the club.
 
How did growing up in Detroit and going to Cass Technical High School help shape your character and work ethic?
 
You know, thank you for asking that. When I was a kid, I loved cars and I was one of those kids who could distinguish between the tail lamps of an Impala from 1975 and the slightly different tail lamps of the Impala from 1974. It also gave me an understanding of the auto industry from the perspective of someone who worked in it. My stepdad is a now retired Ford Motor Company River Rouge worker. I remember picking him up along with my mom in our old Ford Galaxy as he came out of the day shift at around 3:30 p.m. at the gates of River Rouge. What that gave me was a sense of how hard work was necessary for success. As hard as I've worked, both before Toyota and at Toyota, I've never worked as hard as he did.
 
When I talk with him on the phone his question to me always is: “How's work? Are you working? Is work well?” Because for him your ability to work and work well was a measure of your success as someone who would provide for the family. That also shaped me.
 
I think also the other thing that growing up in Detroit taught me is, nobody works alone. In a typical assembly line, you've got to show up on time and hit it, and the person next to you has to show up on time and hit it. If it's just one of you, the whole thing falls apart. So, there's a lot of connectivity between you and your coworker.
 
Another thing that shaped me, particularly in the large African American community that existed in Detroit: I had so many examples of achievement, of academic excellence, of hard work, of people who had multiple jobs, of folks who created, even with just a high school education or even less than that, a successful life for themselves and their families. I got out into the broader world and heard a narrative, sometimes specific to Detroit, about how Detroit's a broken city, or sometimes specific to certain communities of color, that they're broken communities. Well, I didn't grow up in a broken community. I grew up in a functional community with high functioning people who transmitted that need to achieve and excel to me. That gave me the confidence to function and operate in a whole lot of environments and reject some of the negative narratives that we hear about Detroit or about communities of color.
 
By Dan Nied
 
 

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