The Accidental Change Agent

How Toyota Canada’s Kylie Jimenez went from apathetic about HR to its biggest advocate

When Kylie Jimenez started her career, she had no interest in human resources. Since that time, not only has Jimenez embraced HR, but she has also redefined it. At Toyota Canada Inc. (TCI), the national manager of human resources has reshaped the department from one that was historically viewed as an administrative function to a capable strategic partner. It is now a valued department focused on ensuring a positive connection between the company and its most important asset: its associates.

“What’s happened here at TCI is an HR transformation,” Jimenez says. “To enable this change, we first looked at where the organization was versus where we thought it should be, and then we went to work—first to understand why and, secondly, how to close that gap.” In a career defined by transformation, the adaptable and tenacious Jimenez’s own transformation began after a former boss offered to pay for a course in HR.

“Initially, I was skeptical,” she says. “Even after starting the course, I wasn’t that excited.” However, once she immersed herself into a project where she was studying Glaxo Smith Kline, her attitude began to change. “I discovered there were companies that actually invest, realize the return, and invest again in their people,” she says. “It was a pivotal moment for me—I realized HR was a strategic business function at its heart, not just a touchy-feely thing.” So Jimenez went back to school, specialized in HR, and received her Certified Human Resources Professional designation.

“When I started, the HR department had one of the lowest engagement scores I had ever seen.”

“Today, HR has one of the highest engagements scores and is thought of as a strategic business partner.”

Upon graduation, Jimenez joined Summerwood Products, designers of outdoor structures, as a member of its management team. Here, she gained a wide breadth of experience from sales to operations. “Summerwood was a small entrepreneurial company, so I quickly learned firsthand how agile an organization can be from top-down,” she says. Looking to expand her base to a national scope, Jimenez next joined EB Games. “I discovered how organizations can turn a profit and have highly engaged employees in a very lean environment.”

Her time in these dynamic environments helped crystallize Jimenez’s business acumen. Jimenez then had the opportunity to put her studies to real-life practice and joined Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) pharmaceutical division as an HR manager. “The dream that I saw at Glaxo Smith Kline became real when I arrived at Johnson & Johnson,” she says. “They may sell pharmaceuticals, but the other thing they do is develop people; J&J used to churn out high-performing leaders.”

During a maternity leave for her third child, General Mills headhunted Jimenez. She met with the company’s leadership team, fell in love with the company, and joined its team in Toronto. General Mills also believed strongly in developing leaders and the Canadian team had an excellent track record, which appealed to Jimenez. “General Mills was focused on creating opportunities, growth, and challenges,” Jimenez says. “But unfortunately for me, their leaders, HR practices, and processes were very sophisticated, so I was only able to add value through incremental improvements. I wanted and felt like I could do more.”

When Jimenez explored the opportunity at Toyota, she deduced that the HR function wasn’t what she was used to. “There were strengths to be sure, but HR wasn’t living up to its potential,” she says. “TCI had amazing people, but they weren’t being served by a strategic partner. HR was more like a policing function. And no one invites the police to the party, let alone the proverbial executive table.”

To begin changing perceptions of HR, Jimenez began her change effort by introducing the HR-business-partner model to TCI to ensure HR was in sync with its business leaders. At the encouragement of the president, TCI launched an engagement and enablement survey. “The survey was important since it allowed us to make strategic recommendations based on facts and data.” Once HR’s credibility as a valued advisor was established, Jimenez was able to add strength and capability to her team by adding new talent and launching a revamped HR brand within the company.

This rebrand changed perceptions by introducing easy-to-access portals for the different functions that HR performs. These functions were branded to reflect the needs of associates as My Rewards, My Wellness, My Career, and My Learning. They were also explained to every department in the company via a series of information sessions hosted by the HR team. This allowed every associate to hear from the HR team how TCI creates value for each employee. “Now if you ask people about HR, they’ll tell you we’re a strategic partner,” says Jimenez. “What we really want to do is move to a more customized experience for an employee, where people know that their unique skills are valued and rewarded.”

Jimenez and her team then turned their attention to defining an employee-value proposition (EVP) for Toyota, which would allow employees work for a company with a global reputation yet have an opportunity to have a significant impact on Toyota’s position in the Canadian market. Another key component of the new EVP was that employees would be part of a high-performing culture. To support this part of the EVP, TCI established a partnership with the Schulich School of Business to create a customized leadership and management program. “The partnership was to kick off a much-needed culture shift,” Jimenez says. “We wanted to reemphasize that we value leadership and make sure that we don’t lose sight of that. That meant we needed to invest in our leadership capability.”

A key component of the Toyota Schulich Executive Education program was the creation of capstone projects. These projects were designed to bring people together from different functions in order to solve business challenges while increasing the skills and knowledge of the participants. Additionally, the capstone projects give leaders an opportunity to connect, collaborate, and have some fun in the process. “We’ve created the program in such a way that people from across divisions are working together to solve meaningful challenges” Jimenez says.

To complement the larger-scale transformative changes, TCI also made some program changes that would nurture a culture of personal accountability. Both programs generated high employee engagement at little to no cost. Dress for Your Day, for example—like the name implies—affords an employee the flexibility to dress more casually at the office when they have no meetings with vendors, clients, or dealers. Likewise, the summer-hours program empowers employees to make decisions for themselves about how to best balance their time at work and at home. For Jimenez, these programs epitomize her vision for TCI. “Ultimately, everything is about the same thing,” she says. “It’s about creating a high-trust culture in which people are excited to contribute their very best.”

When asked what the driving force behind the success has been, Jimenez credits two things—“a progressive and supportive executive team and the best HR team in the industry,” she says.