Before joining Toyota in 2012 as vice president and deputy general counsel, Sandra Phillips Rogers was a partner at global firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, specializing in complex litigation management and strategy. Now, as the chief legal officer, general counsel, chief diversity officer, and group vice president, she helps navigate Toyota Motor North America through multifaceted business decisions and counsels the Toyota team on topics including cybersecurity, privacy, and global transactions.
For our June/July issue, we chatted with Phillips Rogers about lessons she has learned and advice she would give to other Dallas business leaders.
D CEO: What’s the most critical business lesson that you’ve learned?
Phillips Rogers: “I think the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that the fundamentals matter, regardless of the time: the fundamentals matter in good times, and they manage in challenging times. Given Toyota’s culture, we strive for two core pillars in the Toyota way—respect for people and continuous improvement—and that’s kind of our North Star. When we keep those two principles first and foremost, then I think everything is fine.
“When you lose focus on that, then sometimes there are struggles. Whenever we’ve gone through tough times, whether it’s an economic downturn, or even just looking at the COVID-19 situation, sometimes there’s a temptation to start just to scatter all around and try to roll up what you think is the best approach. The fundamentals are still there: respect for people and continuous improvement. When I think about that, [I think] ‘In times like these, what are team members most interested in?’ They are interested in candid, transparent communication. They’re interested in ‘How is this going to impact [them]? What does this mean?’ And so, even in tough times, you have to keep that line of communication going. You have to make sure you’re transparent, you’re being practical, you’re respectful, you’re giving as much information that you know, and when you don’t know, you say so.
“The other aspect of it will go to things like trying to find leadership in these types of times, not only within yourself but helping your team members step up and be leaders. I think that is the most effective way to lead through a crisis is not that you show leadership—although that’s first and foremost—but that you find ways for your team members to find leadership. When I think about some tough times the company’s gone through, it’s been those leaders who emerged that you didn’t even really sometimes know had it in them, but then they’ve got a chance to step up and step out and show what they can do. They can gather and engage other team members with them in ways that even as the leader of a group sometimes is hard to do.”
D CEO: What’s your biggest business advice for your fellow business leaders here in Dallas?
P R:“You have to be flexible and prepare for the unexpected, and you have to have resiliency and agility. I don’t think any longer will it be the case that you can anticipate things and expect them to happen. I think things are going to be constantly changing, and what sounds like a plan one day may be scrapped, and then there’s a new plan the next day. You have to maintain a sense of, ‘Well, we’re going with the plan, but if the plan needs to change, here are the levers we need to pull to move into a different plan,’ and be okay with it. Be okay with the uncertainty of it all. Be okay with the fact that you had all these great ideas. Now you’ve had to scrap them and move them to another place. I think resiliency, flexibility, and agility will be the new things that leaders will be judged and evaluated on because that demonstrates the depth and breadth of a leader’s capability.”
D CEO: How do you think business leaders should best go about cultivating resiliency, agility, flexibility, and a sense of comfort with uncertainty?
P R:“We already are looking at those opportunities now, of how can we be disruptive and innovative and do things differently, and I think the way you give team members that opportunity, is that you engage them in that disruptive innovative approach to doing things a new way, and you reward and challenge team members to come up with solutions in their work: how can we do something better than the way it has been done? How can we challenge the status quo?
“So, at Toyota, our team members are evaluated on those factors: What are you doing to do things differently? What are you stopping that no longer adds value, so that you can move resources to a place where it does? I think if you’re challenging team members in the work that they have to be disruptive, to challenge the status quo, to do things differently, then I think when times like this come up [the team members] have that mindset, they have that mentality, and they can quickly mobilize and move into action. So, I think that’s how it happens: it has to be a part of how team members are challenged and, to some extent, how they are expected to perform in just their everyday tasks, so that when something does happen, where you’ve got to scrap the plan and start over, then you already have the aptitude and the proficiency to do it.
“That’s what we’re doing here, and I think we’re just in an age right now in the automotive industry where everything seems different and new, and there’s a lot of anticipation around what the future of transportation holds.