In 1988, having been employed as Managing Counsel for Toyota for three years and with a decade of practicing law under my belt, I found myself feeling a little too comfortable with my projects. So I decided to seek out a new challenge. Little did I know that my curiosity would lead to one of the most critical turning points in my career.
As Managing Counsel, part of my job was to identify potential issues across the company, wherever those might be. I decided to look into a complex area of government regulation that encompassed employee benefits—a matter that was outside of my regular area of expertise. I engaged a third-party consulting firm to help evaluate our operations in this arena. We found that while Toyota was doing many things right, there were several opportunities for improvement—and our senior team knew little about it.
My first reaction was wishing I hadn’t started the process at all. I would have to share my findings, but with whom? I knew senior management would be very interested, but I had never worked with any of them before. Needless to say, I was very nervous. Looking back, I can see that this is a trap that catches many women – we want to be visible, but we are scared to raise our hands. I could have let my boss handle it. To his credit, though, he pushed me to move outside of my comfort zone. With his encouragement, I got over my fears and decided to lean in and present my findings to the most senior executives at the company.
This decision turned out to be the one of the most pivotal points of my career. After my presentation I was asked to develop a plan to address the issue, which led me to create and run a cross-department committee. In addition to resolving the issue, we drove unforeseen benefits for the company, such as a new system to educate employees about investments and retirement.
The entire experience turned into an incredible opportunity to gain greater visibility with Toyota’s most senior executives. They began to call on me for advice and counsel. When my boss retired as General Counsel a few years later, I was already seen as a natural choice to take his job—a position I subsequently held for ten years. In all, I have been with the company for 25 years.
What’s important is that this critical opportunity in my career wasn’t handed to me. It grew out of my own restlessness and the decision – encouraged by my wise boss – to explore unfamiliar territory. It taught me that leaning in is not just about doing well with what you're asked to do; it’s about taking a risk to see what you can make happen.