Executive Insider: Al Smith

He oversees Social Innovation, but what does Al Smith think about Business Partnering Groups, mentoring team members and diversity?

October 23, 2018
Al Smith has been with Toyota since 1990. So, he knows a little bit about what the company stands for.
That’s just part of what makes him the perfect person to serve as Chief Social Innovation Officer, a role Smith took over last year.
Not only has Smith been part of Toyota’s evolution for the better part of three decades, he deeply cares about the community Toyota calls home – no matter if it’s in Texas, Michigan or Mississippi.
We wanted to know more about that evolution and Toyota’s efforts within the community, so we sat down with Smith earlier this month.
Driver’s Seat: One thing I notice, when we established our headquarters in  North Texas, we really made an effort to become part of the community. Social Innovation is a big part of that.
Al Smith: You are right. Toyota always invests in the communities where we do business. It’s a consistent approach we take when we launch new operations in new communities. Whether it’s a manufacturing plant or our new campus in Plano, we work to engage and enhance the communities where we work and live. Now, that we’re here, it gives us an opportunity to establish ourselves as a positive presence in the community. It makes good business sense and supports our commitment of Respect for People. We’ve brought in a lot of people. Our team members live in this community. Our kids go to the local schools. We are definitely part of the community in many ways.
What do you love about your current job?
It’s a great job with big challenges. One of the biggest challenges we have in front of us is to establish a true culture of inclusion. We’ve had a diversity program in place at Toyota for more than 20 years. And while we all work to settle into our respective areas of One Toyota, we’re merging different cultures together: manufacturing, sales and marketing and finance, all under one roof and working to establish a culture where everyone is recognized and valued. It’s a big job. It’s very exciting. There are entities in place now, like the Business Partnering Groups (BPGs), that help us do our work. Our culture is still forming. It’s going to be new, it’s going to be different from what we’re familiar with. What’s exciting to me is that it gives us an opportunity to start over, improve, to make it better. Continuous improvement. That’s what it’s all about.
You mentioned the BPGs; what is their importance?
In our efforts to capture feedback, as a company, we leverage the voice of the customer, voice of the dealer, voice of the community. Our BPGs give us feedback on what’s important for team members. First of all, there are over 75 chapters across the enterprise; comprised of team members who volunteer their time to improve our workplace and business position in key community segments. They are the voice of the team member body. They’re a reliable voice for us to learn how we can be better tomorrow than we are today. When they give us feedback, it’s coming from the core of our most important asset, our people. It’s coming from our source. So, I always try to engage them and encourage them to speak up, because they help shape our culture and, more importantly, shape our company.
Meet the Smiths -- From left, that's Akili, Antoinette, Al and Imani.

When we announced the move, one of the first things that happened was a group of representatives from all the BPGs got on a plane and came to Texas and took a tour and reported back. I think that was a pretty big factor in the amount of people who moved. 
Let’s talk turkey here. There was a lot of openly expressed concern from people coming to Texas. I was one of them. Texas is considered a very conservative state, very different from what we knew in California. There were viable concerns from the different communities. The African American community was one. The LGBTQ community was another. People who have children with special needs was another. We expected the worst. So, you’re right, the BPGs gave us a perspective that we probably wouldn’t have gotten by just reading the headlines in the local newspapers. Toyota wanted to make this transition smooth for everyone. What’s most powerful about what you’ve stated is Toyota proactively made the investment to make the smooth transition happen. It wasn’t about moving the company so that we could bring down the cost of doing business. It was about positioning our company for the future and keeping people excited to work for this company. So, allowing the BPGs to scout the landscape was a very smart and generous move on Toyota’s part.
How has One Toyota changed our charitable efforts?
We’ve always established a positive community presence in virtually every place we do business. We have strong, long-standing partnerships across North America that are a reflection of Toyota’s charitable activities and community involvement. One Toyota gives us an opportunity to leverage all of our assets to support the health and growth of the surrounding communities. However, it’s not just about writing checks anymore. We have thousands of people across our workforce that are willing to volunteer their time to community events. That’s a reflection of One Toyota. We have specialized resources that we use today to help further the agenda of our community partners. We introduced TPS to some 501(c)(3)s where strategic process improvements can enhance their operations. These organizations generally don’t have the resources or the expertise to make that happen on their own. That’s a One Toyota opportunity. Creating collective good, along with resilient, sustainable environments for our community partners is what we are doing. And the volunteer work of our team members has helped us internally because it’s given our people good exposure and the opportunity to engage in areas where their charitable passions lie. That’s the power of social innovation.
Why did you want to work in Social Innovation? 
I love this company. Toyota has done a lot for my growth and exposure, and my family. And my career at Toyota has been a great opportunity for me to experience things I may not have experienced otherwise. Leading Social Innovation gives me the platform to give back; promoting and contributing to causes that help Toyota thrive. Back in the late 90’s I was one of the two-member team that started our diversity initiative. I was the young, eager professional, wanting to make a difference in our world, at that time. Somewhat like today’s millennials. I’ve always had a strong drive to help Toyota do better and be better, and also help Toyota team members fulfill their life’s goal as their goals and values align with our company. Social Innovation can be the epicenter for creating a culture where people will flourish. I believe my job is to help address the issues that affect us all, our people, our environment and our communities. How cool is that!

If someone comes to you and says I don’t know what to do with my career. I don’t know how to get to the levels that I want to, what’s your advice?
I get that question all the time. You should know I probably mentor about 25 people. And I love mentoring, it’s exciting. It’s probably more therapeutic and enlightening for me than it is for my mentees. Most of what I try to impart is ground-level career advice and messages to help people grow in their own space. Some of my advice to my mentees comes from advice I’ve gotten from my mentors. Or I share professional life experiences with younger professionals to help them navigate their careers. However, I’m a believer that career development is a personal journey and what worked for me won’t always work for someone else. One point I try to convey to mentees is to pursue areas they’re passionate about. If you’re working on something you’re passionate about, the workday is more fulfilling and goes a lot smoother because you love the work so much. When I talk with Bob Carter, it’s clear he loves cars. That’s his passion, no doubt. He loves his job. You can hear it in his voice. Find your passion. Seek a career path that aligns your passion and career with your life’s purpose and go from there. At the end of the day, you want to make good money to provide for your family, but the right career is the one you’re excited about every time you come to work. I like helping people. My job is all about helping people. And, while some people think my job allows me to hand out checks every day to our stakeholders and community partners, not true. But, everything my team does, in some form or fashion, is about uplifting people and communities in need. Some internal and most external.
Last time we got together, we talked about your kids. Akili and Imani.
Imani is 24, Wow, time flies! I have to watch myself because I’m going to brag on my kids.
That’s what I was going to ask you to do. Why are your kids better than other kids?
Every father wants to believe his kids are great people. Plus, they’re my kids! I love them. I love everything about them. I just think they’re amazing people. Ultimately, they are becoming what my wife and I want for them. We want them to be really good people who are happy and joyful in their lives. My son Akili is 19 and a junior in college now. Imani is about a year and a half into her career. She works in a strategy and analytics role for her company. She’s in Singapore for a six-month assignment and it is breaking my heart because I don’t like my baby girl that far away from me. I guess I’m supposed to let her explore and grow now, but I’m struggling with it. I’m excited about what she’s doing and who she is becoming. She’s gonna change the world, no doubt in my mind. My son will change the world also, again, no doubt in my mind. I love them both very much.
That’s all we’ve got, Al. Thanks for your time.
Thank you!

By Dan Nied
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