Leadership and Race: A Conversation with Toyota’s Sandra Phillips Rogers

February 09, 2021

Sandra Phillips Rogers wears many hats at Toyota Motor North America. In title, she is group vice president, general counsel, chief legal officer, chief diversity officer, and corporate secretary. In action, Sandra develops strategies to navigate significant business and legal challenges while supporting Toyota’s expansion as a global mobility company—all while advancing the company’s ambitious diversity goals.

In a fireside chat with Morgan Lewis partner Grace Speights, Sandra discussed her career path, including her time at Morgan Lewis, secondment at Toyota, the challenges of being a Black woman in business and law, and her ongoing dedication to diversity and inclusion.

In Sandra’s words, “Being trusted does not know color or gender.” 

In your career, which includes working both in private practice and in-house legal departments, were there obstacles you felt you had to overcome being Black and a woman?

I will tell you honestly that there have been challenges. I might not have always recognized it at the time. But now looking back I can say “yes, that particular instance was an obstacle.” Earlier on especially, it was a challenge to be accepted, viewed as credible, and seen as someone who could manage a big piece of business or lead a firm committee. It’s like you weren’t coming in the package that many were accustomed to.

But these were not always the challenges I thought they were. I’d love it when an opponent in a courtroom underestimated me based on what they saw, not who I was and what I am capable of. I had the experience and knowledge to try these cases or lead these meetings. I learned to be indispensable. I was the person you could give anything to and I could get it done—whether it was good, bad, or down the middle.

What I found fundamental was that letting people get to know me was important and that I needed to stand down from any defensive posture. I set out to try to let people see the real me. At critical junctures in my career, I look back and see those who sponsored me and helped me advance, these people truly knew me. They knew my skills and business sense, but they also know I love my gumbo and beer butt chicken—look it up!

What is the most valuable advice you received in your career? Do you have any words of wisdom for us as we strive to create a more diverse and inclusive profession?

Throughout the years and from many people, there has been so much advice bestowed upon me: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t beat yourself up. Everyone needs grace, forgiveness, and understanding. But I think what truly stands out is this one: Pick your battles.

When I first came out of law school, I would try to be involved and fix everything. What I realized is that you have to know when to act and when not to act. Acting right away could be impacted by misunderstanding, a lack of information, and not appreciating the situation.

And remember, not everything is a hill to die on.

From your experiences, both at law firms and in-house, how do you look at diversity and inclusion? Can you tell us how that dynamic evolved?

In my experiences, I’ve found a way onto the diversity committees—and when a firm didn’t have one, I was one of the founding members.

I have always believed that diversity and inclusion are how we succeed. Diversity and inclusion make companies strong. Diversity and inclusion are about a company’s culture and who they are as an organization. Teammates need to feel comfortable being their true selves. And the workforce needs to represent all those we interact with.

Within the last year, I believe that we have really seen that diversity and inclusion efforts are not only the right thing to do, but necessary for us all to be doing. When thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s now a top five priority—it’s a business imperative. The more that people can understand and appreciate that, the better off we all are.

We understand your favorite quote is “to whom much is given, much is required.” Can you discuss how that guides your work in the diversity and inclusion space and in the legal field?

I see this quote to mean that I have the opportunity to—and that I can and will—be the change that I seek. I will be a leader and use whatever platform I have to foster dialogue and understanding. I need to bring a chair when I can get a seat at the table. This is when change can happen. We cannot be reliant on others to bring that change.

At this point in my life and career, I have made a commitment to be a mentor. I currently mentor more than 30 employees at Toyota and at least 10 more individuals outside the company. I believe that I have learned along the way that I can share, and I can learn from them as well.

In terms of leadership or race, what have you read or listened to that you would encourage people to explore?

In terms of podcasts, I’ve become a huge fan of Emmanuel Acho and his “Uncomfortable Conversations.” There is an effectiveness and accessibility in his authenticity and the simple way in which he addresses complicated things. Ibram Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning also stands out to me. It may not be the work most people talk about, but for me it speaks to the need for the tools to try to have the discussions to understand where we are today—and how to get from here.