Susan Elkington recalls being “scared to death” when she became a production manager at Toyota’s Princeton, Ind. plant while still in her early 30s, overseeing 110 line workers on the night shift.
An introvert who grew up on a farm in Huntingburg, Ind. (population 6,057), Elkington drew on the planning skills she learned as a mechanical engineer. She made a schedule of workers to get to know each night, and within three months, she had learned every employee’s first name and a little bit about each, she said. “So as I came into the production area, it was like working with family and friends, and that is one of the things that I think has been important for me to be successful,” she said.
Elkington, 46, said she still tries to apply that personal touch, even though her role has grown: She now leads Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky. plant and more than 8,000 employees. She is the first female president in the plant’s 30-year history.
In Elkington’s first supervisory job overseeing the plant’s industrial maintenance crew, she recalls asking a male employee why he didn’t speak up in meetings. “‘Well ma’am, I have never worked for a female before and I don’t know what to say,’” she recalled him saying.
Elkington said she told the man to say whatever he would say to a male boss, and she would let him know if he “crossed the line.” The two had a “great relationship” from then on, she said.