Lifelong Learner

TMNA R&D’s Carla Wright has advanced from administrative assistant to general manager by embracing new opportunities wherever she can find them

December 19, 2017

Carla Wright has worked with just one organization — Toyota Motor North America R&D in Ann Arbor, Michigan — for 18 years. But that doesn’t mean she’s had just one job.
“I’ve held just about every position and have had every classification I possibly could as I’ve gradually worked my way up the ladder,” says Wright. “That’s a little unusual here. Most R&D team members focus on developing a depth of knowledge. Instead, I’ve always sought to broaden my skills.”
These days, Wright is leveraging those varied experiences as group manager of Technical Strategy Planning. The scope of her responsibilities is breathtaking: from managing R&D facility development to planning for resources and headcount to accounting and financing to community engagement to internal communications.
Oh, and in her spare time, Wright serves as TMNA R&D’s regional champion for diversity and inclusion. And she was the founding executive sponsor of the R&D Young Professional business partnering group that strives to improve the retention of high performing team members, realize the One Toyota culture and build relationships with organizations in the local community.
Wright didn’t plan for all of this to happen. Rather, she started down one path and kept a lookout for promising diversions along the way.

Keynote Address -- Wright opened this year's SAE Women's Luncheon on Diversity. Her message: "How Inclusion Can Help You, Your Team and Your Company Grow."

A Critical Career Shift
Born and raised in Michigan, Wright attended Madonna University in Livonia, earning a degree in education.
“I started out as a teacher,” says Wright. “But it wasn’t long before I realized it wasn’t right for me. So, in 1999, when I saw that TMNA R&D (then TTC) had an opening for an administrative assistant, I applied and got the job.”
That foot in the door was with the Engineering Data Management department. Its mission is to promote standards throughout the organization for how technical information is prepared and distributed among team members and with suppliers.
Wright fulfilled the job tasks she was given. But she didn’t stop there.
“As a teacher, the way training was done grabbed my attention,” she says. “Back then, there was training on how to develop the documentation for a new part or process. But there wasn’t any guidance on how to push that change through the system, such as communicating with the manufacturing plants so it’s clear what needs to be done. I saw a gap there and proposed training to help fill it. Basically, I created a new job for myself.”
Wright has repeated that pattern over and over again throughout her career with Toyota. And, in turn, the organization has been far better off for it.
“One of the great things about Toyota is that you really can make your job whatever you want it to be,” she says. “Of course, you’re given certain roles and responsibilities. But in the spirit of kaizen, you’re also encouraged to look for ways to do things better. So as I’ve mastered one role, I’ve always looked to grow and expand into others.”
Wright is also a big proponent of seeking out special projects that can expand knowledge about the organization and further develop capabilities. Her willingness to volunteer her time and talents with such working groups has also contributed to her continued climb up the R&D org chart.

Community Outreach -- Wright (back row center) serves as the executive sponsor of the R&D Young Professionals business partnering group. Among its many activities are contributions of household items and money to SOS Community Services, an organization that provides temporary housing, food and support for families in need in Washtenaw County.

Clearing the Path for Others
Take, for instance, her leadership on the diversity and inclusion front. As an African-American woman who’s been given — and created — so many opportunities, Wright is passionate about helping others follow in her wake.
“I’ve really learned a lot about this issue since I became our regional champion,” she says. “In particular, we need to make sure we have the tools in place to identify capable women and help them advance. And given the kind of work we do here in R&D, we need to build a pipeline, starting at the elementary school level, to encourage girls to pursue STEM education at an early age. When they get to the university level, we need co-op programs that pull them in and give them practical work experience that can lead to them becoming full-time hires. We need be proactive about this. It won’t happen on its own.”
Rest assured, Wright will continue to proactively chart her remarkable career.

“I’ve only been in my current role for about two years,” she says. “I’m really enjoying the strategy piece and could see myself doing more with that.  But I need to make the current operation sustainable first before I can move on to something else. The opportunities with this company are endless.”
By Dan Miller 

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