ESSENCE Network: Toyota’s Top Lawyer Sandra Phillips Shares How to Talk Your Way to Success

As general counsel for Toyota, Sandra Phillips runs the global car company's North American legal office. See how she turned her communication skills into a C-suite career.

As a child Sandra Phillips grandfather would have her recite the pledge of allegiance for friends because of her speaking ability. As General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer of Toyota, she now runs the North American legal office for the global car company. See how she turned her communication skills into a C-suite career.

Name: Sandra Phillips

Age: 40s

Title: General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer, Toyota Motor North America

Location: Torrance, CA and Plano, TX
   
Hometown: Beaumont, TX

LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/sandra-phillips/33/419/b75

The gig: I am general counsel and chief legal officer for Toyota in North America. It’s like running a law firm for the company. Our role is to support legal needs and business strategies so we can all better serve our customers, including intellectual property, export law, litigation, real estate and more. Every day presents different challenges and opportunities – it keeps me on my toes!  And it’s a real privilege to work among so many talented professionals – everyone brings their A-game every day, which makes our office an exciting place to work.

The journey: When I was a little girl, my grandfather, ran a dry cleaners and would take me on his business calls. He had me recite the Pledge of Allegiance and told me I had the "gift of gab." I have been talking ever since!  In school I recited poetry, debated and even did pantomime.  So I set my sights on becoming a trial lawyer.  I believe your passion is your calling.  I have been a partner in three law firms, including managing partner.  I was also a senior vice president and associate general counsel for a leading pharmaceutical company. I developed a reputation as being a go-to/can-do person, which has unlocked many opportunities throughout my career.

Her best advice: Be flexible.  The legal job market is tight and showing no signs of significantly loosening in the near future.  If you don't get the job of your choice right out of the gate, don't fret.  Make the best of the job you do get.  Bloom where you are planted.  Eventually, you will get to where you want to be professionally if you remain dedicated to your purpose, stay focused on your goals and take every opportunity to build your skill set.  Think of your career as a buffet.  It doesn't always matter in what order you get your food – just fill up your plate in the end!

Confessions of a Black lawyer: It has not always been easy being the “first” or the “only,” which is what many Black women face in the legal profession.  I’ve found it really is true that you have to be twice as good in order to overcome prejudice and bias – whether overt or unconscious.  Some days this can rock your confidence and test your patience, but I count it as being all good.  These challenges have made me strong and resilient.  Today, because of those challenges, there are not too many situations that I can’t tackle and where I can’t shine.  As the first Black woman in my current role, it’s a real privilege to bring my unique experiences and insights to the table.

Her biggest lesson learned: When I was a younger lawyer, I prepared a memo that made its way to the senior partner before I had finished editing it.  The partner was very upset because the memo wasn't up to par.  Rather than blame my administrative assistant or lose my composure, I owned the mistake and vowed to make it right, which I ultimately did.  The partner later told me that my handling of that situation was a defining moment for me and my career. It demonstrated I could “take a licking and keep on ticking.”

Her time-saving tip: I try to prioritize my days.  I handle the most important things first.  Once I know I have handled the most urgent tasks, I can move through the other things on my to-do list more quickly.

Her best lesson: Embrace difficulties and disappointments and don't fight them.  Acknowledge, accept and then move on to the learning or opportunity that is sure to follow.  It's natural to ignore bad outcomes and to quickly try to move past them, but if you don't deal with them, you will never truly overcome them.  Disappointment hurts; feel the pain, move on and never return to that particular scene again.

Her career highlights: Something I am particularly proud of is being the 2008 recipient of the Diversity Pioneer award from the Defense Research Institute (DRI).  This award recognizes personal achievements in and a commitment to diversity in the legal profession. This year I had the honor of presenting at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit in NYC to recognize Toyota’s “Mothers of Invention.” The program supports courageous women who are developing innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Her downtime: I love listening to jazz music.  Dianne Reeves is one of my all-time favorites.  I listen to music at work, in my car and at home. I also take walks on the beach.  Nothing beats hearing the sound of the ocean. 

Her secret superpower: I have the ability to see both sides of an issue and build consensus among opposing viewpoints. It’s that or my Captain Kirk coffee mug, which always sits front and center on my desk!

Her tech must-haves: My iPad and Zagg keyboard.  I travel a lot and often have to work around the clock, so I love that I just pop it open and go.
   
Her power style accessory: I love well-coordinated jewelry.  It kicks up any outfit and gives me a more polished and fun look.

Her theme song: Right now Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk  gets me moving and strutting my stuff.  I sing it in my head before I go into big meetings: "Don't believe me? Just watch!"
 

Read More