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Five years ago, Toyota Motor Corp.'s top American executive, Jim Lentz, confirmed for Congress what the automaker's critics had long surmised: "Japan," as he put it, made all the big decisions.

Over two days of hearings into sudden-acceleration complaints that mushroomed into a global recall scandal, Lentz and Toyota President Akio Toyoda exposed the fiction of Toyota as an "American" company — if that means anything more than being a foreign-owned company employing Americans where it also builds cars and trucks.

That was then. In a significant announcement Wednesday, the Japanese automaker confirmed that Lentz would add Toyota's North American manufacturing and engineering to his duties as CEO and become a senior managing officer.

Toyota also said Julie Hamp, a former General Motors Corp. executive who managed Toyota's North American communications, would become the global automaker's chief communications officer and its first female managing officer. And Chris Reynolds, a Harvard-trained lawyer, would become a managing officer and Toyota's chief legal officer — and Toyota's first African-American at that rank.

It's hard to overstate the powerful symbolism of the moves by Toyoda. The scion of the founding family has been steadily diversifying (and liberalizing) Toyota's hidebound corporate culture with a slow but steady infusion of foreign talent at the highest levels of the company.

His goal: to speed and inform decision-making with a more diverse set of leaders who represent key Toyota markets. It should because more than 80 percent of its vehicles are sold outside Japan.

Mark Hogan, a high-ranking GM exec before he decamped a decade ago to become president of Magna International Inc., for now is the only foreign-born director to sit on Toyota's board. Didier Leroy, a native of France who heads Toyota's European region, will become an executive vice president and join the board of directors.

The board moves will continue a process of winnowing Toyota's board to a dozen members from 15, according to a source familiar with the process. That would more approximate the size of comparable global companies, including GM and Ford Motor Co., and increase the board's foreign representation.

In a statement, Toyoda said the "diverse team of executives with fresh perspectives, unique regional insights and a global mindset" would help "better serve customers around the world" — the key phrase being "around the world."

Change in the C-suites of global automakers has been a long time coming, but it is coming nonetheless. Not just along gender and race lines, either. Global automakers are salting their leadership ranks with executives from different national origins, foreign owned-rivals and individuals who reflect markets where they compete.

The heads of GM's international operations and its Opel Group GmbH, based in Germany, are both veterans of Volkswagen AG, hires that give global automotive legitimacy to GM's efforts in each function. The head of Cadillac, Johan de Nysschen, is a South Africa native with deep ties to the revival of Audi AG in the States.

"Having global representation on leadership teams has evolved in each case from having local nationals with international experience ... to having multiple cultures with truly global cultures and experience," a ranking industry executive wrote in an email. "Add to that then the pure competence of women and you have a further depth of perspective."

You also have leaders who more accurately reflect the markets the automakers serve; the workforce toiling in plants and sales offices, design studios and engineering; diverse perspectives that can inform product development and business processes.

To Toyota's moves, it would not be unfair to say: "It's about time." Its sudden-acceleration debacle in 2010 exposed an alleged global power beset by silos that did not communicate and communication slowed by the heavy hand of Japan. Autonomous decision-making and regional empowerment proved to be more talk than reality.

The clarity and introspection that come with crises can drive changes like that. So can democratization in business and the maturation of a generation of leaders receiving — and seizing — opportunities their predecessors didn't.

A woman, Mary Barra, leads GM, making her the highest ranking female in the history of the industry. More than a third of GM's directors are women; a quarter of its officers are women.

Come April 1, Japan's industrial behemoth will have more Americans in its top rank of leaders than anytime in its history — evidence that Detroit's automakers are not the only ones acknowledging reality.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.

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