Her dual roles are united by a single passion: To help others achieve their best.
“I’m always drawing connections to things that happened in the past and what they say about your future,” said Sandra Phillips Rogers, Chief Legal Officer and Chief Diversity Officer of Toyota, North America. If she’d thought of things that way as a teen in Beaumont, Texas, she might have predicted that one day she help to lead Toyota to its next era as a mobility innovator and as the automaker with the most diverse workforce.
When her sister left to attend college at the University of Texas, Sandra took the wheel of her 1980 Toyota Celica. “It was blue. I worshiped that car,” she said. Soon after, Sandra followed her oldest sister and brother to UT and though she studied broadcast journalism, she decided to follow her heart and attend law school after earning her undergraduate degree.
Also at UT she got her first taste of being a change agent for diversity. She took a role in the “admissions program focused on recruiting minority students. I did this for three years; we put on special programs to tell the story of the University of Texas and why it’s a great place for” students of diverse backgrounds.
Finding Advocates Where She Might Least Expect Them
After graduating from law school, Sandra worked in the gas and oil and pharmaceutical sectors, pursuing her dream of being a trail lawyer. But she also developed mentors and learned how to lead from the people she worked for. She credits much of her career growth to “people I’ve gotten to know over time who have taken time to show interest in me, who have been generous with their time, given me guidance and a helping hand. And, advocated for me to get a promotion. This made a tremendous difference in my career and how it’s progressed,” she said.
“Carla Herron showed me how to be a lawyer from strategic and practical sense,” Sandra said of her first professional mentor. “She also became a sponsor, so when it was time to be a partner in the law firm she was there” to advocate for her. “There was a gentleman at Chevron who was a sponsor,” Sandra said. He recognized her ambition to become a trial lawyer. “He told me to go get litigation experience,” and helped her to land a position at Chevron’s law firm.
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Hello Toyota: A Temporary Role Leads to the the Perfect Fit
Sandra’s journey took her to New York to work for Pfizer; it was there that she met Chris Reynolds, now Toyota’s Chief Administration Officer. “In 2010 I learned he was in the middle of big litigation and needed someone to help set up the structure to manage it. I had experience in this type of litigation, so I moved to California to help Chris and his team on the unintended acceleration litigation. I was boots on the ground. When the opportunity came to join the team, I felt I already was even though I was an outside lawyer,” Sandra recalls. “But I felt the culture, values, priorities, commitment to excellence, respect for people and [commitment to ] continuous improvement” of Toyota represented the work environment she wanted to be a part of. She thought, “this works perfectly for the type of person [I am] and career goals I set for myself.”
Both her professional and personal journeys took flight at Toyota. “The CEO asked Chris to pilot bringing together [the legal department for] sales and manufacturing. I had been hired on sales,” Sandra said, so she knew that side; her challenge was to incorporate it with the manufacturing side into one team. The project started in June and by November “we had a cohesive legal group,” Sandra said. “I should have thought something about that ask, because a year and a half later I learned of ‘One Toyota,’” the strategy that would bring all functions together culminating in the North American operations moving to a single campus in Plano, Texas, just outside Dallas.
“I cherished that opportunity; I got to know those organizations better, understand both what they brought in culture and tradition, and married them together. I got to know people I would have not known otherwise,” she said.
The project also set her up for a greater role at Toyota, taking on the title of Chief Legal Officer. In this role she’s focused on the company’s larger-ranging strategies and public responsibilities like autonomous cars, connected vehicles, shared rides, privacy, cybersecurity and more.
And, the move allowed Sandra to realize a leadership role that was also a personal passion. In 2018 she took on the added job of Chief Diversity Officer.
Diversity Is the Fuel of Success
Always a champion of inclusion and diversity, and understanding the value it brings to the organization, “diversity allows team members to be engaged and operate at their peak, to drive innovation, to make better decisions, and in a competitive environment it gives you a strategic advantage,” Sandra said. These were practices she put into place with her own team in the legal department —at one point it was 70% women she said with a chuckle— and it was a success. “So when opportunity came to serve as Chief Diversity Officer, I was coming in with that gust of wind,” and was able to encourage these practices company wide.
Leading diversity at Toyota, which was already the most diverse automaker in the industry when Sandra joined the company, is “a very humbling, very awesome responsibility. To be the person who is the keeper and protector of diversity and inclusion is an awesome responsibility I’m honored to have and I don’t take lightly. It is the juice, the fuel that powers companies,” Sandra said. It lets people operate at their highest potential. “In a time like now I can see how my role is making a difference.”
Everyone Needs 5 Mentors: The 5 Dimensions of Mentoring
Mentoring is so important, Sandra said, because “you can’t really reach your highest peak without having people who can tell you what’s coming around the corner.” Ask Sandra about mentoring you get two responses: On her heart-felt side she shares enthusiastic and grateful stories of all the people who have mentored and inspired her along the way. And from her more lawyerly, analytical side, a framework for how mentoring works: The 5 Dimensions of Mentoring. Everyone needs five mentors, she says. They are:
- Navigator – to help you navigate your career and teach you the ropes
- Subject Matter Expert – who will help you learn the nuts and bolts of your business
- Sponsor – who will advocate for you
- Personal mentor – who will advise and listen, such as view to your presentation before you give it to executives
- En Masse – which she says happens when joining programs or groups, such as groups for women, people of color or other cohorts. This is “where you can gain information and insight and share perspectives; a lot of people don’t realize that’s mentoring,” she said.
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Being a Mentor is Important, Too
To be a mentor Sandra says, mentors should look at where the mentee is in their position or career to know how to help. “I try to sponsor them, but if I’m not in their direct chain of promotion then I am helping them to connect with opportunities for leadership in business, partnering groups or special projects.” She mentors more than 20 team members at Toyota.
And, while Toyota has made great strides creating a culture that drives diversity and professional development, there’s always room to grow. “We need to continue to work on team member development and engagement, through rotations [so people] see different sides of the company,” she said. “If we are doing our job,” the effort will be seen in retention and promotion. “I would like to put more focus around the pipeline. And at a time like this with all the social injustice and unrest, now is a good time for all companies to start to learn and understand this struggle for racial equality. I see an opportunity to create more learning around that; it’s my focus now.”
Passing Lifelong Lessons On to the Next Generation
As a girl growing up in south Texas, Sandra’s mom was an English teacher and her father was an entrepreneur. She learned self-reliance and confidence from both her parents. But she credits her mother with instilling her with ambition and attention to detail. She “always made sure my grammar was correct and that has served me well to this day! She dropped out of college to raise her family. After my parents split up, she went back to school to finish her undergrad degree and got a master’s degree in education,” she said. “My siblings and I wanted to be like her and all of us have advanced degrees — a doctor, two lawyers and education administrator.
And, as she was inspired by her parents she hopes to inspire her stepson and nieces and nephews. “I’m so proud of the next generation coming up,” she said, who seem to be following in their parents footsteps pursuing medical and advanced degrees. But she also hopes they take away “that I stood for something, that I was about trying to make wherever I worked better, that I took not only my responsibility as an executive seriously within the company, but I tried to do things to help community and society at large.
Sandra keeps an autographed photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. in her office, a photo that she’s had an opportunity to look at a lot lately. “There’s a part of me that says wow, you feel like an underachiever when you think of someone like him. But my journey is to do what I can and what I’ve been called to do. Life isn’t just about a job or reaching a particular place,” she said, “but to have a platform of influence. That is what drives me, that is my mark.”