BLACK ENTERPRISE recently revealed the upper ranks of female leadership at the nation’s largest public and private companies with the release of the 2019 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America list. One of the standouts found on this exclusive roster is Sandra Phillips Rogers, who manages an expansive portfolio at Toyota North America as group vice president, general counsel, chief legal officer, corporate secretary, and chief diversity officer.
Holding degrees in journalism and law, respectively, from the University of Texas at Austin, this brilliant legal eagle joined Toyota in 2012 after holding a series of high-powered positions at prestigious law firms and major corporations. Considered one of the company’s most valuable senior managers, she is routinely called upon to handle complex issues, ranging from global transactions and corporate inclusion to cybersecurity and intellectual property.
One of the cover subjects of our January-March Women of Power issue, Phillips Rogers shared with BE, among other details, her professional ascension and tips she gives mentees on achieving success in corporate America. The following are edited excerpts from that interview:
Throughout your career, you’ve repeatedly shifted from major corporations to high-powered law firms. Which environment did you find most rewarding?
Well, I think both have their advantages but working in a company gets you closer to the business, and that’s ultimately why my career has taken me to Toyota. When you realize as a lawyer that you have the ability to help shape the business strategy through your legal advice and then also as an executive understanding more about what some of the corporate priorities are and how you can help them achieve it, that synergy really is very exciting to me. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is when you work for a company, you’re a part of a much larger organization. I really like that. The opportunity to be a chief diversity officer, work on various community activities and be a part of how the company is going to, in the case of Toyota, transform into a mobility company, that’s all very, very exciting and satisfying. Of course, there’s the great people and great products that Toyota makes. So that’s also very, very attractive to me.
At Toyota, you serve not only as the chief legal officer but also oversee diversity. How did that dynamic evolve?
I’ll start by saying that I have been a champion of diversity and inclusion for many, many years under my legal umbrella. In 1999, I was a part of the first diversity committee at the law firm I was employed [with] at the time. It’s been a progression and a passion of mine…and frankly, an obligation I feel to help bring more diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. So when the opportunity to become the chief diversity officer presented itself, it was a natural fit for me because I’ve spent so many years moving diversity and inclusion forward in the legal profession, also within my legal team at Toyota and other organizations that I’ve been a part of. Now, it’s very exciting to do it for the entire company. It’s something I take quite seriously but it is a very big honor for me.
In terms of your legal career, what were the cases in which you were most proud?
As I look over my career, the things that I’m most proud of are issues where there was a lot at stake, a broad impact for my client in terms of not just the legal strategy but the business strategy. It was necessary to coordinate a large team to all work together, be on the same page, and have a common strategy. It wasn’t always easy bringing various interests together, but I’m most proud of that teamwork, of how we all came together to help try to solve a very important issue for the business, customers and various stakeholders in the community. That’s what really excites me: A big hairy problem which brings together people as a team and you help solve it.
As a woman professional, how did you navigate challenges to eventually reach your current senior-level position?
For me, it’s always been important to understand the challenge, and then apply what you know in the context of the culture of the company. I’ve worked in a lot of different organizations. One approach might work in one organization but might not work in another. I’ve always viewed a challenge as an opportunity to show and demonstrate my leadership and commitment to the organization. What was always fundamental is to find out where the landmines and pitfalls were because sometimes those can derail your activities before you even get going. I think the other piece is where diplomacy and respect for people come into play. Savviness, emotional intelligence. I think these are all things that have served me very well over my career. Sometimes folks want to just go boldly into the challenge. You have to step back and understand the environment, the culture, the people, and then you have to plan a strategy that takes all of that into consideration.
Who have been your mentors and how have they helped you decide on the career path you took?
The mentors I’ve had have fallen into five buckets. One would be a person who I would call your subject matter expert. They kind of show you the ropes and help you develop your chops in a particular area of expertise. The second is the navigator, someone who helps you see around corners, tells you where you may want to go for opportunity or what to avoid because it could potentially stifle your progress.
Of course, the sponsor is very, very important. These are individuals in my career who have been my bosses or other senior people of influence who can speak on my behalf and help connect me with opportunities. The other group of mentor is the personal mentor. These are my friends and people who know me well. Some are outside the organization; some are inside. They’re the ones who can tell me, “You know, Sandra. Run your presentation by me and I’ll tell you if I think that’s the right approach.” Maybe they can tell you about how to present yourself, whether it’s a dress or how you express yourself. The last group of mentors is what I call peer to peer. That’s mainly women of color I meet at conferences to just exchange stories and ideas.
So what’s your mentorship approach and what advice do you give your mentees?
First of all, I try to build a relationship to establish mutual trust so that they know that it’s safe to talk to me, open up and really get to the core of what it is that’s either troubling them or the dreams that they have. We can figure out how we can navigate to help get them there. But it’s really about seeing an opportunity to help move someone who’s already in a great place to an even better one. I try to give them the benefit of my experiences…what’s worked for me, what hasn’t worked for me. Then, I try to figure out where they are in their organization and help them navigate some of the politics and things they need to think about.
But I want to give them some practical tools to put in their kit so that they can go back and say, “OK. I need to approach my business presentations this way.” Or, “I need to make sure I make relationships with these people.” Or, “I need to make sure that I am going to volunteer so that I can develop power.” One of the things that has just been a very important part of my career development is building power outside of the organization. If you become a leader in your community or profession that can spill over into the workplace. People find out about you, and they say, “Oh, Sandra’s leading this great effort with United Way.” Sometimes, your bosses may see you in a very limited way but then they see you differently. My counsel: Build your power within but also outside of the organization.
Define your leadership style and how it evolved?
I always start with who I am as a person. I always start with being authentic, which I find helps enable the other aspects of being a good leader. Someone’s who’s trustworthy, someone that you can rely on. If you’re seen as being authentic, whether that means a strong leader, whether it means being courageous, whether it means being vulnerable, that’s really how you build your brand as a leader. The other important piece is external to you. It’s the people that you have on your team and how you empower them to succeed. I think the other part of it is just being what I call more of a servant leader, someone who models behavior and can inspire others to follow. Those are the best leaders because when times get tough, profits are down and you’re doing more with less, your ability to help move your team beyond that is going to be based on whether you’re seen as being a part of the solution, getting down with the team at the grassroots level and help do the work to bring the situation back around.
Vital to career ascension, especially for African American women, is being heard in various corporate settings. How did you develop your voice?
One of the things that is key is for everyone to know executives in a company are looking for people to help them solve problems or come up with the next great idea. If that’s the case, your voice is really the only way that that is going to happen. A lot of people will be paralyzed feeling that their voice isn’t important, no one will listen to me or I’ll say something wrong. Most senior executives are looking for ideas. Clearly, all of the ideas are not going to hit gold but you have to realize that your voice must be at that table in order to create this new pathway for business. When you realize that you’re needed, that gives you more confidence to speak up and articulate whatever it is that you feel is going to help the company succeed. It’s about confidence and not being afraid to fail. I think that that really stymies a lot of opportunity, coming from women and women of color. You just have to realize that your voice matters.