Julia Wada, who retired in April 2022 after over three decades at the auto giant, joined Toyota Motor Sales right out of graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked her way up to become the group vice president of strategy, innovation and transformation at the company’s financial services division. Prior to that, she worked as a program manager and engineer for Lockheed Missiles and Space Corporation as a bona fide rocket scientist. Wada spoke at the 2016 Women in Business Summit.
How has the business world changed since the start of your career?
Well … that takes me back quite a while, so things have changed dramatically. I was a young female engineer and, as I think back on it now, I was lucky to work for great managers who taught me a lot and made me feel valued. I was working at a defense contractor, so my view of the business world had a lot to do with working for the government. Back in those days, we women wore business suits with padded shoulders and always wore stockings and I had a lot of blouses with bows.
We actually physically “cut and pasted” to create presentation materials — compared to today, when we have everything from PowerPoint to video capabilities and real-time demos. Back in the ‘80s, at business school, they taught us that the purpose of a business was maximizing shareholder value, period. Today, businesses recognize multiple stakeholders and work to maximize opportunities and value for all their key stakeholders — e.g., employees, customers, investors, communities, business partners. Businesses today are being held accountable to be good corporate citizens, advance environmental progress, be socially responsible and have strong governance in place.
How have you changed?
I am more self-aware and have more empathy and awareness for others. I’ve learned and grown so much as a team member and leader at Lockheed and Toyota and through my involvement with diversity, equity and inclusion over the last nearly 20 years. For example, the simple idea of the “platinum rule,” which is to treat others as they would want to be treated, is profound. It requires you to be curious, to try to put yourself in others’ shoes, and to strive to understand what is important to them and why. When I was younger, I didn’t consciously think about looking at things through other lenses. I’ve found it’s something that applies and has been helpful for me in nearly all aspects of business and personal life.
What obstacles did you face?
Luckily for me, I was not so attuned to potential obstacles early in my career because I just didn’t know how things worked in the business world. My parents raised me with the immigrant American dream mindset that if I worked hard enough, it would be recognized and rewarded. Combined, I think these things might have made me more confident than if I had been told early on about bias or business politics or the challenges of people leadership, etc. So early in my career, I think it was more about self-imposed obstacles, such as thinking or acting in a particular way because I thought I was right and not seeing or understanding how to be more effective. As I have grown as a person and leader, I have seen more clearly the complexity of the world we live in and how our relationships, allies and supporters can help us see and overcome obstacles. For example, I had one manager who was very opinionated about my area of responsibility, and we often didn’t agree. At first, I dreaded having to report to them, but as I opened my mind up and as they did as well, we developed a mutually respectful partnership and became great friends. There were definitely some heated conversations, though!
Did any of the obstacles surprise you?
A lot of the obstacles I’ve seen and experienced in the workplace have to do with people interactions and relationships, which makes sense to me now because work is all about getting things done with other people. And we all have different ideas about what we want to get done and how. When I started my career, as an engineer, I thought things were more straightforward - that it was about solving problems that had answers. Now, the longer I’ve been in my career, the more I feel that the basics we all learned in kindergarten are the things we need to remember. Things like:
- Do your best
- Be kind to others
- Tell the truth
- Take turns and share
- Be respectful
- Listen when others talk
- Say please and thank you
What experiences, training or education best prepared you?
I’ve had so many and they all fall into what we refer to at Toyota as the 3Es: Education, Exposure & Experience. Typically, about 10% of your development comes from Education, about 20% from Exposure and about 70% from Experience. For me, in the Education category, I’ve learned from many books and great training over the years, like diversity education, Communications and Crucial Conversations training and Manager and Mentoring training. From an Exposure perspective, it’s been powerful learning to be able to see others in action, whether through being able to attend certain workshops or conferences or being part of particular teams. And finally, Experience, particularly challenging new situations are what stands out to me. For example, when I was first promoted to lead others, some of whom had been my peers, when I was promoted to lead a team where I did not have expertise, and when I moved to another part of the company where I didn’t know the business or the people.
What has helped you the most during your career?
Striving to do my best, being open and always learning, and having great role models, coaches, mentors, and sponsors who pushed me and supported me.
I realize now that I looked to female leaders as role models throughout my career without consciously thinking about it. Their diversity has helped me see how authentic leadership is about making the most of your unique strengths and not trying to be anybody else.
What is the best advice you've received?
I had been promoted to lead a new team & was having a challenging people situation and my boss basically asked me “what happened to the Julia that people loved working for?” It was then I realized that I was trying to be like my predecessor, which was ridiculous because she and I were so different. It goes back to the power of authentic leadership.
What is the worst advice?
I can’t think of anything here. Maybe I’ve blocked the bad advice out of my mind!
What do you wish you would have known earlier?
To recognize the power you have and step into it.
What advice would you give to others?
Don’t let anyone or anything put you in a box, whether that is your title, someone else’s opinion of you, or your own mindset. And to recognize the power you have and step into it!
Do you have any memories of Women in Business?
It was the first big event I went to in Texas after moving from California. I remember people being very welcoming and friendly. We had a great time on the panel. There was terrific engagement from the audience, and it was clear that the women attending this event were interested in making a difference.
The magazine issue itself kept popping up too, at work and even at restaurants that I went to. I was on the cover, and a number of my fellow team members and even some who were considering Toyota at the time mentioned the issue to me and how they liked seeing Toyota represented in the community.
I also remember meeting Tre Wilcox who catered the event. We have since done holiday parties and team-building events at his place, which have been so much fun and delicious!
What do you think the future holds for women in the business world?
Unlimited opportunities. I love that many women are now focusing on paying it forward and lifting others. We recognize that we are better together and will thrive together.
What book had the most impact on you and your career?
This is always a hard question for me because there are a lot of books that have impacted me. One book that always comes to mind is Mindset by Carol Dweck. She talks about the power of the growth mindset vs. the fixed mindset. Some other business books that I often recommend are Leadership Pipeline by Ram Charan, Drive by Daniel Pink and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.
What is the biggest mistake you see women making when it comes to advancing their careers?
Thinking that keeping their heads down and doing the work will be noticed and rewarded. Often, they are not taking the time to look up and around to understand what is required to advance and develop or expose those skills.
What was one of the most interesting (or useful) things you learned this year?
In the workplace, I have been using the Microsoft suite of products for a long time, and now that I’ve retired, I have to admit I am just learning the Google suite of products this year: Google Drive, Docs, etc. I think they are great. They are very useful!
What’s a recurring hurdle for you? (time, money, attitude, location, knowledge, etc.) What strategies are you using to overcome that?
I can get easily distracted by good articles that cross my feed, so there is never enough time for all the things I’m interested in. I also can get very focused and lose myself in my work. I’ve had to learn to draw the line for myself - for example, actively managing my calendar and actually scheduling downtime. I’ve also been practicing daily mindfulness now for a number of years and I have found it very helpful in learning to be fully in the moment, to let go of some things and to be more objective. I have also had to be intentional about taking care of myself, physically and emotionally, so that I can be at my best.
What’s your personal brand and how do you nurture it?
I hope people see me as a kind person and someone they’d like to interact with or work with. Someone who is trustworthy, who cares, who makes a difference and is always striving to do better and be better. In terms of nurturing it — I don’t think of it as “nurturing” because I believe your authentic brand is built by your everyday actions and interactions. They are your personal brand “moments of truth," especially when you’re faced with a difficult situation.
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