Exit Interview: Jim Lentz

The outgoing TMNA CEO sits down for one last Driver’s Seat interview, looking back on a four-decade career and answering some team member questions from NABU

March 18, 2020
Jim Lentz Exit Interview: Part 1

Jim Lentz Exit Interview: Part 2

You may have noticed an emotional moment at last month’s North America Business Update (NABU) meeting.
Outgoing CEO Jim Lentz teared up a bit when talking about the role his wife, Barbara, played in his 38-year career with the company.
Sure, Lentz’s accomplishments – helping to guide the company through the unintended acceleration crisis a decade ago, and consolidating North American operations in Plano, Texas, to name just two – hold a considerable amount of weight for him. But when he addressed team members for the last time at NABU, it was Barb’s sacrifices that struck a cord.
The lesson: Yes, this a business. But there’s a human element at play here, too.
And for a man whose empathic and cerebral nature has helped him thrive as the leader of thousands of team members, that moment may have said more about Lentz than any of the hundreds of interviews he’s given since taking over as CEO in 2012.
But, you know, we still had to try.  
Before he officially retires on April 1, we managed to get Lentz to sit down for one final interview. Not surprisingly, it was filled with careful retrospective, reflection and some laughs.
Read the written interview below, watch the video above. And join us in thanking Jim for his leadership, and wishing him well in retirement.
Power Couple -- Outgoing TMNA CEO Jim Lentz credits his wife, Barbara, for being a rock throughout his career. 

Driver’s Seat: During NABU, I noticed that you got a little emotional when talking about your wife, Barbara. Can you talk about her contributions to your career and to this company?
Jim Lentz: When Toyota hired me, it was a package deal. Her background: she's a clinical audiologist. She was a researcher in tinnitus, ringing in the ears. She had a great career and ended that career to follow me in my career. We made 11 moves through our tenure. And you know what travel schedules are like. I was traveling, on average, probably 100 days a year with two small children at home. So, she was really almost raising those children by herself, which allowed me to do what I needed to do for Toyota. And the interesting part is that she's been a great host, so whether it's team members, whether it's dealers, whether it's executives from TMC, she's always opened up our home.
I think dealers and their spouses are going to miss Barb more than the dealers are going to miss me.  And even before the move here to Dallas, when we spent that last week visiting the four finalist sites for our new headquarters, Barb was on that trip representing the relocating spouse or partner, because we wanted to make sure we kept the families’ experiences in the mix. So, she's been part of it from the beginning.
What has One Toyota meant to our individual performance?
I think it allowed everybody to get a little bit outside their comfort zone, and I mean that in a good way. When you get outside your comfort zone, the blinders come off and you start looking at things differently. And I think that's partially where innovation comes from. You don't want people to be nervous to the degree that they're paralyzed, but the sense that everything is new, I think is actually a good thing. I think it's helped the company grow. It's helped the company bring in 1,000 new people with new ideas and a new appreciation for who we are as a company.
What's the difference between a good CEO and a bad CEO?
I think leadership. I think back to my days when I started with the company and, basically, we did what we were told and we accepted it. You didn't question what was expected of you. If somebody said ‘you need to do this by a certain time,’ that's what you did. No more, no less. Today it's different. Today as a leader, people need to understand the “why.”
It's important to understand why something is being done because, as a result of that, you may provide exactly what someone was asking for plus more, and that can make a huge difference. So, the understanding of the why today is really the big difference from when I started in the business 40 years ago.
Right. No iron fist anymore. Now it's empathy.
Iron fist doesn't work. I mean, I've got a 32- and a 35-year old son. They're not going to work for a task master. It's just not going to happen. There's poor morale in that case and people just do what's expected. They don't go beyond that.
What’s a learning experience you had at Toyota?
I can remember being in the marketing team. In meetings, if I gave my opinion too early, everyone else would just echo that and tell me what I wanted to hear. I very quickly learned I should always be the last person to speak so I could hear all these different ideas. Then I was pretty good at selecting which one made the most sense. But the diversity of different ideas, I think, allowed me to be a strong leader. Being a good listener is important. I think my best trait is I'm a good decision maker because I keep my mouth shut.
Big Decisions -- Lentz, seen here in 2016 in his office at Toyota's temporary Plano location, played a key role in uniting the company's North American operations in Texas.
What was the most memorable day of your career?
One really stands out. It was actually when I was at Ford Motor Company. I just got promoted to district manager and got my first company car. It was a 1979 emerald green Thunderbird, and I was so happy to drive it home to show Barb. We lived in Denver at the time, so I pulled up into the driveway of our little tiny house -- and we didn't have electric garage door openers. I got out of the car, shut the door, and the car popped from park into drive and drove right through the garage door. So yeah, I'll never forget that.
How much pressure did you feel when you took on the CEO role? Because you have thousands of people looking to you for guidance at TMNA, and then you have TMC looking to you for results. So, you're getting it from both angles.
Oh, it's enormous. I wasn't sure if I was even ready for that role because every major decision I made affected the lives of all of these people in North America. So, if I make a bad product decision – say instead of selling 300,000 of something we sell 100,000 – it affects what happens in dealerships. It affects what happens in communities, our team members working on the line building cars. It impacts everybody. It puts on an enormous amount of pressure, which forces you to study and understand even more before you make those decisions.
At NABU, you urged team members to resist the pressure to go back to the pre-One Toyota ways. Why is that so important for us moving forward?
I think it's critical. You can never repeat the mistakes of the past, and the mistakes of the past were a result of being too slow making decisions, of hoarding information, not being transparent even within our company, and the fact that we really had to understand the customer. It all tends to go in cycles.
So, let’s say in 10 years, we're doing great. Volumes are moving, sales are moving. But we actually become so arrogant that we lose sight of understanding the customer because we think we know it all. Then a crisis like unintended acceleration slaps us in the face and brings us back to reality. We have to resist that 10-year positive cycle and always, in the back of our mind, make sure we’re honest with ourselves about what's going on, making sure you make quick decisions, making sure you're transparent with all stakeholders that you're working with.
A Legacy -- Team members in Plano came to wish Lentz farewell last week before he retires from TMNA on April 1 after a 38-year career.

Since we can only answer so many questions at NABU, there were a couple team member questions I wanted to run by you.
OK, shoot.
On your last day of work, what kind of car will you drive off in?
My lease car I've got right now. It's a red RX Hybrid.
How long do you get to keep that?
It’s a three-year lease. So, I've got another year left on it.
Still on the employee lease program?
Of course.
OK, next question: Other than One Toyota, what do you feel will be your greatest legacy?
Hopefully it’s leading by example. That people realize you can be a CEO and still be humble. You can still be accessible, you can still be approachable, that you can listen more than you speak.
What has been your biggest regret?
I don't have regrets. You make the best decisions you can, based on the information you have and with the right intent. It should help your customers, it should help society. Sometimes decisions are good, sometimes decisions are bad. To use the baseball analogy, you hit .350 and you're in the Hall of Fame. Hopefully I hit a little bit better than .350.
I don’t think there’s any doubt you did, Jim. Thanks for being with us and thank you for leading us all these years. We’ll miss you.
By Dan Nied

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