Executive Insider: Chris Tinto

Toyota's group vice president of mobility on helper robots, future business and what we need to do to bring the future to life

April 11, 2018
 

Chris Tinto has a lot to say, and we want to keep this word count respectable. So here’s what you need to know about the new Group Vice President of Mobility.

 
  • Came to Toyota in 1994 after working for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Served in Legal One as a senior advisor, but isn’t a lawyer.
  • Served in the One Toyota Project Management Office leading teams working on the new corporate headquarters, and served as the Group Vice President of Future Business Technology
  • Got a shiny new title last month, when his team slotted in under Chief Digital Officer Zack Hicks, who also serves as CEO of Toyota Connected.
  • Straight shooter with upper management written all over him.
 
OK, now you’re prepared to read on and find out Tinto’s professional advice and vision of the future.
 
Driver’s Seat: So, GVP of Mobility. What do you guys do here?
 
Chris Tinto: I oversee two groups currently - One is working on human support robots (HSR) to help provide mobility to individuals with mobility impairments or disabilities, and a mobility services team, which looks at new mobility business ventures and innovation.
 
We want to talk mainly today about human support robots.
 
You may have seen some of Toyota’s ads and videos – like the video of Romy Camargo and the HSR, or the iBot wheelchair, in the Olympic ads. These are examples of devices that can help people with disabilities become mobile. We are asking ourselves how we can we serve those people, and can we also make a viable business out of that. Most importantly, how can we best serve these people? Can we provide mobility for them to get out of bed, get into one of these chairs, go outside to an autonomous vehicle, get in that, and go home, keeping them mobile the whole way? Because with a lot of those folks, their challenge is the first and last mile. Getting to the bus, getting to the taxi. They can’t easily get there. Well, if we can give them a wheelchair that climbs up and down tall curbs and moves freely through rough terrain, now they’re not stuck in their home any longer. And there’s all kinds of other things that we’re looking at, but it’s about providing mobility to people we just don’t serve right now.
 
Starting Your Impossible -- Chris Tinto's group is charged with developing and finding business cases for human support robots like the one used by wounded veteran Romy Camargo.

The robots have a little more mystery around them because we don’t see them much. Where are we in that space?
 
It’s still new so we’re trying to figure out where we fit and how we can make the biggest impact. We still have to convince folks that this is a business we should be in. And there are all kinds of things that you have to think about to be in that kind of business. You have to have FDA (Food and Drug Administration) expertise because these are medical devices. We have to build that expertise and internal capability to be sustainable. There’s a uniqueness to a medical robot versus building something that will get you a beer out of the fridge, and we don’t need any medical approvals for that. But a medical robot has to be careful how it interacts with a person. It can’t poke them in the eye, it can’t drop something or fall over. These people can be bed-ridden. They can be paraplegic, quadriplegic. So you spend a lot of time working on just the software to interact with the person. Have you seen the Romy Camargo video, where we are able to give him water? That’s actually a big deal. Sounds like it isn’t, but if I held out a bottle to you, you could reach out and drink it and then move away. But he has none of that control. The robot has to identify his facial features, decide he’s ready to drink, make sure it doesn’t stick him in the eye, put it right to his lips, watch him drink, pull it away. It’s very different.
 
Who is the customer for these mobility products?
 
It depends on the device. But for example, the iBot could have lots of customers. People that are in wheelchairs now, as well as for people with different levels of impaired mobility, this device makes them freer to move around. The problem is that type of technology is expensive. So, the primary buyer will likely be the insurance companies for a while. But we have to work on ways to appeal to a broader customer base by making it affordable.
 
Wise Words -- On excelling in the office, Tinto says "Be positive and encouraging. Just don't bring your problems with you. Instead, build people up, encourage others and bring solutions." 
  
Your team just moved over to Zack Hicks’ organization – the newly created Digital Transformation and Mobility pillar. How do you guys work with Toyota Connected?
 
In my mind, Toyota Connected is building the software and big data platforms that we hope to put all of our future mobility services products onto. My group is looking at strategy, execution and operation of these mobility services. So that’s why it makes sense for us to be under Zack, because our team, along with Zack’s other teams, Toyota Connected and Connected Technologies, nicely leverage each other. With this change the other groups don’t have to worry about things like service execution. There’s a great synergy there. So instead of us potentially duplicating efforts, now we’re working together. My team is a small group that was formed about a year ago, but we’re starting to make real strides. We’ve set a North American strategy, and Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) and our senior leaders are on board. So, we’re in a great place to leverage the strengths from Zack’s teams. Now is the time to integrate and say “OK, with what you’re doing and what we’re doing, how do we join forces and march in the same direction?” And that’s what we are going to do.
 
Let’s talk about your career. In three years, you’ve had three high-pressure jobs. How do you get to the point where you’re an executive and you can just kinda fit in where you’re needed?
 
I’ve got a couple of mottos in life. The first one is, “All the world’s a stage.” You’ve got to put your game face on every morning, because people are watching. Be positive and encouraging. Just don’t bring your problems with you, instead, build people up, encourage others and bring solutions.
 
The second is the most important one: “90 percent of life is just showing up.” What I mean by that is some may not be as dependable as they should be, they may not work as hard as they should, they may not work well with others, etc. I don’t mean putting in a million hours. I mean when you’re here, contribute, work hard, work smart, be part of the team. There isn’t much that we do here that you can’t learn. It just takes perseverance and patience to learn.
 
When I start a new job, I just keep quiet and listen for a few months and let other people tell me what’s going on so I can learn from them. My father said, “Hire people smarter than you, and they’ll make you look smart.” Now, the bar is low for me (laughs), but it’s great advice, because I let the smart people tell me what we need to do. These are the people who know what they’re doing. So, I let them do what they do, but I understand that I’m ultimately responsible for where we end up. For them, I bring a different perspective and background. I may know other things are going on in the company, what other groups are thinking, etc. The things that my people might not be exposed to in their world. It’s not because they’re not as smart as me, but they just don’t have those inputs. Whatever your background is, you can carry it to your next job, but go in with the confidence that there’s almost nothing here you can’t figure out. Notice, I said confidence, not arrogance. A humble confidence will go a long way.
 
Unafraid -- Tinto's solution to communication lapses? Don't be afraid to "look dumb" and ask for clarification.

What leads to mistakes being made?
 
I’m telling you 90 percent of our mistakes around here are because we sometimes don’t clearly talk to each other. We go into a meeting, the boss says something and people don’t ask questions, so we go off and do our own things. We’re afraid we’re going to look dumb if we don’t understand. I’m happy to tell you I don’t need help looking dumb, I can do it all by myself. So why don’t you just ask for a better explanation of what was just said if you don’t understand? And if I need to write it down and you’ve got to repeat it back, that’s OK, because at least everyone in the room walks out of there with the same understanding. We’re terrible at that because we’re afraid. It’s natural to be afraid to look dumb.
 
What point did you become not afraid to look dumb?
 
For me, some of it just came with age and experience. When you’re young, and you’re taking on the world, and you can beat everyone and you’re smarter than everyone and faster than everyone, that’s great. Until you realize there’s always someone faster, always someone smarter, always someone more successful, always someone better looking (laughs). But you finally realize that that’s OK – and it’s OK to not know everything. It’s OK to ask. Remember, iron sharpens iron.
 
I sold cars for a little while a long time ago. One of the salesman gave me some advice. He said, “You know what, man? Customers hate it when you know everything. They really start to trust you when you tell them you don’t know something, but you’ll go find out for them.”
 
So, when does that happen? For me it just happened. Fred Durst, the lead singer of Limp Bizkit, has a great line in the song Take a Look Around. He says, “Life is a lesson, you learn it when you’re through.” I can imagine breathing your last breath saying, “I’ve got it!” Until then, you don’t got it. You are still learning. If you just realize you’re running along with everybody else, you put your pants on the same way everyone else does, it’s easier.
 
I believe this is the first time anyone’s quoted Fred Durst. I think anywhere in the world.
 
Hey, I’ll take a lesson from almost anybody. 
 
By Dan Nied
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