Monday, April 4, 2022
Seven defining moments in the life of Michael Cross, CFO of Toyota Connected North America


Michael Cross yearbook photo

1. Iowa / Iowa State

We ambushed him. Just a few seconds into our interview, we showed Michael Cross (BBA91) his college yearbook photo. After a few incredulous seconds, an ‘Oh my god, what is that?’, and a ‘Wow,’ Cross laughed and told us his story, starting with his time as an Iowa Hawkeye—something that almost didn’t come to be.

“I’m from Bettendorf and I always liked numbers, so was either going to go to Iowa State for engineering or Iowa for business. I was really into computers and programming in my teens, but at the time computer software engineering wasn’t a clear career path. The general concept of the internet didn’t even exist publicly yet. There was, however, a clear path for finance, so I chose Iowa.”

US map

2. Midwest / West Coast

Cross spent the first nine years of his career in commercial lending banks in Chicago, then quit for the promise of the Silicon Valley.

“By then, the internet was there in full force. I was sitting in Chicago, and it was like 40 below and I thought, ‘What are we doing here?’”

After moving across the country, he went to a career fair at San José State University and chatted up the people at the Hewlett Packard (HP) table. His networking—and banking experience—paid off. He had secured a job in tech finance within 60 days of arriving in California.

Purple squirrel

3. One-trick pony / Purple squirrel

Cross spent eleven years in various roles for HP, stacking his resume with experiences, including remote work before it was a thing—something that helped him get off to a smooth start with Toyota Connected despite a March 2020 start date.

“My dad always used to say, ‘Build your toolbox because they can never take those tools away.’ And it’s true. I have had many forks in my career, but each one brought me more experience and checked more boxes for my current role as CFO. You have to keep looking for how many boxes you can check for the role you want. You may not be a purple squirrel (the perfect applicant), but you want to hit as many requirements as you can. Early in your career you’ll never find a role that will give you every skillset you need, so look for opportunities and raise your hand.”

Dollar bill

4. Comfortable / Uncomfortable

After more than a decade at HP, Cross moved on to gain experience in the startup world.

“I wanted to get into more challenging opportunities and be at the center of strategy. I worked for a few startups, moving down in terms of the size of organization. Until you’ve literally tried to raise venture capital and make payroll, you don’t realize how exciting but scary it is. Coming back up the chain, I still apply that type of thought to my role at Toyota Connected. I don’t care how much capital I have access to—every dollar is valuable.”


5. Analog / Digital

“My passion for technology was always there. I started programming on VIC-20 computers with a tape drive, writing basic programs, learning Fortran, all these different old languages that now aren’t even in use.”

His early and sustained interest in technology suits him in his role at Toyota Connected, which operates like a tech startup within Toyota. His work includes anticipating and innovating technology experiences to make people’s lives easier.

The company is primarily made up of software engineers, developers, and designers who are creating technology features like a machine learning-powered virtual assistant and a telematics platform that can automatically connect you to emergency services if in a collision—offering both safety and convenience for new Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

They are basically eradicating things that the next generation will cringe about and ask, ‘Wait, you had to do that manually?’”

speech bubbles

6. Monolingual / Bilingual

One experience that he’s currently drawing from started clear back when that yearbook photo was taken. Cross was a finance major and Asian studies minor and learned Japanese language and culture at Iowa.

In his commercial lending days, one of the banks he worked for was Sakura Bank where he would occasionally surprise some of his Japanese managers by responding to comments made in their open plan office.

His Japanese experience has helped him understand and operate within Toyota, too, even if his Japanese is now rusty. Our interview was sprinkled with Japanese words, which have seamlessly become part of his life. For example, he referred to nemawashi several times. In Japanese it means the process of gaining consensus.

“A lot of what I do is to help drive consensus in Japan so that when we get to the board meetings, it’s basically just a hanko (stamp of approval) process. Japan has a very different way of doing things. Americans, we have the mindset of ‘ready, shoot, aim,’ but in Japan it’s ‘ready, aim, aim, aim, aim…’”


7. Status Quo / Radical Innovation

Kaikaku, or radical innovation/change, is one of the core values of Toyota Connected. With this aggressive company ethos in mind, Cross’s team is ushering Toyota into the future.

“Mobility is the focus, long term,” Cross said. “My kids’ generation, for example, are more interested in tech features than chrome, leather, and horsepower. They may even not want to buy a car. They might want fractional ownership, a subscription, or shared autonomous cars. The model is going to change—the whole concept of mobility. We’re constantly thinking far into the future. There are so many opportunities that are coming.”


This article originally appeared in the 2022 issue of Exchange magazine.