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Jennifer Barron: If people are engaged and empowered, they do better

Promoted from national manager of service retention in December, Ms. Barron is the first woman to head up Lexus in Canada

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Jennifer Barron

Director, Lexus division, Toyota Canada Inc. Promoted from national manager of service retention in December, Ms. Barron is the first woman to head up Lexus in Canada, reporting to TCI president and CEO Larry Hutchinson, a fellow Canadian. Ms. Barron, born and raised in Hawkesbury, Ont., graduated from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in 1988 with a degree in office and administrative studies, and began working in the Lexus call centre a year later when the brand launched. She spoke to The Globe and Mail a few hours after making her first presentation to English media, at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto.

I have always loved to drive. I never shy away from long drives. It's always been a great place to be on my own. I am in full control.

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A great driver is safe, confident, not taking risks. You have a talent for it, where you feel comfortable. You can always anticipate what's coming down. Being at ease on the road is very important.

If given the choice to drive or fly to Montreal, I probably drive. That time in the car is fun. You want to feel that connection to the car. [Autonomous vehicles] are certainly coming, but I think there will be a balance, because some people will want to have that feel for the road.

I wanted to work for a large company and I had a lot of respect for Toyota, so I saw an ad and applied. I spoke French all the way through school in Hawkesbury, and have no doubt it helped me get the job here. I was given a challenge right off the bat to move to Lexus in customer service – new brand, ground floor, small team. I was excited by that, and one thing led to another.

Someone I admired was [general manager] Wayne Jefferey. What I liked about his approach, and others' since, was his desire to interact with customers and dealers. He would never ask someone to do something he wasn't willing to do himself.

We were going to a dealer opening and I was driving him. He's sitting in the passenger seat, I am driving, and at that point I was just someone in the call centre. I thought that was pretty cool, having the one-on-one time with him and feeling part of the team.

My last VP that I reported to, he was very much about, 'Here's the end goal, I am going to help, but I am not going to tell you how to get there.' I like that kind of autonomy. So I get to know people. I know a lot of the Lexus team, but not the way I'd like to know them – how they work, and how I can help them be better.

I've stayed because I've really enjoyed the people. In any of my roles, the people I've worked with were personable and friendly.

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My first trip to Japan gave me a really good understanding of why Toyota is the way it is, and how Lexus works the way it works. It was a very educational, enlightening experience and it gave me a better understanding of how to work within Toyota.

Editor's note: At head offices in Japan, executive teams of automotive companies are predominately if not exclusively composed of men, Toyota being no exception. In high-level meetings involving international operations, women are in the slim minority.

That doesn't make me nervous or uncomfortable by any stretch. I've been interacting with Japanese board leaders within Toyota in Canada, and also Lexus Japan. For me, it's natural and normal. I do notice, of course, that there are few women. When getting together with internationals, you see more women in these types of meetings. That doesn't make me uncomfortable or nervous. I've always had a good working relationship with the facing Japanese departments.

I wouldn't say it's male or female; if someone came up through the ranks with the same background I have, they'd have a similar perspective than someone who came up through the technical stream. I have worked many years and talked to hundreds and hundreds of Lexus guests and dealers over the years. That bodes well in this situation.

I have a long history of customer experience, so I have maybe a different slant on things than someone who came up through the technical stream.

My management style is not so much about consensus, more about collaboration. I firmly believe in sharing information. I don't like to keep information to myself. I've managed teams in different capacities, some pretty big, and they need information. I need to listen, because I am not the expert. If I can draw on someone else who has better insights or ideas than me, then that is great for everybody. I am a collaborator and very much like to have the conversations up front.

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Reporting directly to the president now, there is a higher expectation of decision-making and autonomy. You learn how to make those decisions. I've got a great leader in Larry Hutchinson. He's very good in asking the tough questions, which will allow me to develop my decision-making skills further.

I like to empower people. If people are engaged and empowered, they do better and are happier.

The goal for this year is to out-sell last year and have a fifth year in a row of record sales. We'd like to be No. 3 in terms of luxury space here in Canada and Longer term, we'd like to be No. 1., to be the top-selling luxury automotive company in Canada with the best guest experience amongst our competitors. It falls to me, it falls to Larry, it falls to the team. We are going to get there together.

I am thrilled to be here. I look at this as a true gift. I am ecstatic to be working with the best company in Canada, automotive or not. I am proud to be working with Lexus and I couldn't imagine being given a better assignment.

As told to Tom Maloney. Interview edited and condensed for length.

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