The Unique Leadership Style That Helps Me Manage Complex Work, From a VP of Operations

Sponsored by Toyota Research Institute

Photo Courtesy of Toyota Research Institute.

Photo Courtesy of Toyota Research Institute.

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June 19, 2024 at 10:55PM UTC

As Vice President of Operations at Toyota Research Institute (TRI), Jennifer Cohen balances driving daily challenges of the business to resolution with strategic planning for a more effective future. Needless to say, she’s busy. 

Despite the bustle of her daily job, Cohen prioritizes enabling the successes of other women — using her experiences as a single mother to mentor and provide resources. It’s just one of the ways she demonstrates servant leadership, her preferred style as an executive that also seems to be the norm within TRI’s supportive and opportunity-ridden culture. 

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“At its core, TRI is trying to create a work environment where people can be their best, authentic selves,” Cohen said. “We work hard to create opportunities for women to learn, advance and lead.”

Recently, Fairygodboss spoke to Cohen about the important role she plays in creating this community at TRI and the other, rewarding parts of her role. She also shared actionable insights on everything from acing an interview to being more empathetic to others by being kind to yourself.

How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously? 

I joined TRI in 2017 after a career leading technology and operations organizations across industries like telecommunications, conference planning, real estate and SaaS. 

Describe what you do in one sentence. 

I lead operations and technology teams that build the infrastructure and deliver the support necessary to successfully run the business. On our best day, you'll never know we're here. The rest of the time, I work to make sure you're glad we have your back. 

How do you prioritize and deal with your to-do list each day? 

In operations, there are daily challenges that must be resolved to enable the business to function. I carefully balance driving those issues to resolution and devoting time to collaborating with internal customers to resolve strategic and longer-term challenges that are hampering our effectiveness. 

How would you describe your leadership style? 

My style is based on a kind of servant leadership. A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. For me, that means I focus first on developing people and enabling them to perform at their highest potential. Manage the work; develop the people.

What’s one thing you think young job seekers should know about TRI? What about those who are in a more advanced career stage? 

TRI’s mission and culture make it a great place to work for everyone. If you are early in your career, TRI offers tremendous opportunities to learn through our technical seminars, speaker events and the depth of leadership within the company. We also have a strong set of values that can help you develop a successful style of working. For people more advanced in their careers, TRI offers an opportunity to collaborate with world-class scientists on some of humanity’s greatest challenges. 

How have you used your role to help bring up other women behind you? How do you build time into your schedule for this kind of work? 

I have a personal commitment to and passion for enabling women to succeed. As a leader, I leverage my experience as a working, single mother to try to act as both the advisor and cheerleader for women as they navigate professional and personal challenges. This commitment takes many forms, including meeting regularly with colleagues to promote an open dialogue and leveraging my leadership position to advance issues important to women. 

I’m honored to serve as the Executive Sponsor of the Women and Allies ERG and a champion on TRI’s Diversity Leadership Council. In these roles, I work to support employee engagement, help TRI design and advance strategies that build diversity and inclusion, and create a work environment where everyone is able to be their best, authentic selves. 

What’s something you’re especially good at at work? 

I’m really good at working on an urgent problem in a calm and rational way until the problem is resolved. In many ways, the operations team acts as firefighters. Behind the scenes, we’re building infrastructure and resources to enable the business to run smoothly, but when there is a problem, we must calmly and quickly identify the issue and drive resolution. I’m good at keeping my team focused, managing priorities and responding in a thoughtful and helpful manner. 

What about outside of work? 

For fun, my husband and I started learning how to ballroom dance about a year and a half ago. We’ve continued with lessons and are now exploring participation in competitions. We’re not that good, but it’s a lot of fun. I also enjoy participating in several women’s leadership groups to help advance women in technology and leadership. 

What are you trying to improve on? 

Both personally and professionally I am trying to be kinder and more encouraging to myself. When I practice compassion for myself, I find I can have more empathy and impact on others. After years of being pretty hard on myself, it’s a work in progress. 

What are the top three qualities you look for when you’re interviewing a candidate? 

Of course, my first focus is on identifying that a candidate has the core skill set for the role. After that, I focus on finding candidates who are great collaborators and open to new ideas. Finally, I’m looking for people who demonstrate a commitment to personal and professional growth and development. As a lifelong learner, I think that is critical to being successful in today’s world. 

Why do you think your company is a particularly supportive work environment for women? 

At its core, TRI is trying to create a work environment where people can be their best, authentic selves. That commitment is demonstrated by the exceptional benefits TRI offers to support employees. For women, this includes generous vacation time, maternity leave, parental leave and exceptional resources to support mental and physical well-being. 

Additionally, our Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kay is an exceptional, inclusive leader who is committed to supporting diversity across our company. Under her leadership and support, employees have been encouraged to create many resource groups — including Women & Allies, Parents, LBGTQ+ and the Asian Community — that support employees and create a more inclusive workplace. These groups enjoy strong financial support from TRI. 

Finally, we work hard to create opportunities for women to learn, advance and lead at TRI. Those opportunities include showcasing women leaders at all levels during TRI-sponsored Girl Geek dinners, spotlighting women at TRI in Career Girls interviews and sponsorship of many women’s conferences (GHC, WT2, and more), along with supporting women-based events at technical conferences and supporting other activities to attract and retain women at TRI. 


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