Diverse employees can be ambassadors to communities of customers. One of the groups SWAB connected with, which already existed, was the Ford African ancestry group. Together, we started to think of some unique ways that the group could help Ford Motor Company speak to the Black community, and we realized we could help people understand why they should buy a Ford, given all the car options that were out there. We started an incentive program that extended our employee discounts to people in the African-American community and we were able to directly drive sales of vehicles.
As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonia Jackson Myles.
Sonia Jackson Myles is an advisor and executive coach to Fortune 500 companies and private companies. Her firm, The Accord Group, LLC, works with CEOs and their teams on leadership development; DEI, unconscious bias training, and women’s initiatives; change management; employee engagement; and creating a culture where employees can thrive. Prior to starting The Accord Group, Sonia held leadership and executive roles at Ford Motor Company, The Gillette Company, and Procter & Gamble, where her last role was Director, Global Packaging Purchasing, managing 6 billion dollars in spend.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into the main part of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share a bit of your “backstory” with us?
Professionally, my back story is that I started my career at Ford Motor Company and was there for 13 years before I went to the Gillette company in Boston, Massachusetts. Then when Procter & Gamble acquired Gillette, I led part of the integration team and the company created a new role for me as the head of a global media sourcing organization. I was responsible for buying all of P&G’s media which was a big shift for the company because prior to my role being established, that was all done by marketing people.
I started to notice a lot about women in the workplace. I saw that my male mentees were coming to me and talking about things that were different than my female mentees. My male mentees would say, “Sonia, I’ve got this new business idea, I need you to help me flesh it out.” My female mentees were saying things like, “I don’t like working for women. I’m struggling with Tina, and I don’t trust her.” You have to remember, I had teams across the world and I was working with every demographic — people of every socio-economic background, every religion, every race.
You know, so many of us are socialized as little girls to distrust each other. It shows up as early as the age of four, and continues all the way through high school, and then we take those behaviors into the workplace. And the patterns I was seeing at all of the companies I worked for were really a direct result of that. I knew that if women, in particular, stayed in these patterns, we’d never get to the C-Suite or boardroom.
I began to ponder what my role in changing this could be and I knew I couldn’t do it while I had my corporate role (by that time I was responsible for all packaging globally for P&G) and so I left a job that I loved. I established the Sister Accord Foundation to work on these issues with young women and then went on to establish my company, The Accord Group, LLC, which takes a similar message back to corporate America.
But I have to say that an important part of my backstory and what gave me the inspiration and made me brave enough to leave my job was my family. I am the youngest of four children and my siblings are 11, 12, and 13 years older than me. Growing up I essentially had three mothers and two fathers, and I didn’t like it. I was mad that there were so many people telling me what to do. I think that is one of the big reasons why I am a creator and a disruptor. From a young age I said, “No, I’m going to do it my way.”
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I remember one session with one of my executive mentors when I was at the Ford Motor Company. He took me to lunch at a really nice, upscale restaurant in Dearborn. I like to eat. I like a good meal and I love eating out. I sat down and looked at the menu and my gut told me to order the salad, so that I could make sure I was paying attention and getting all of his wisdom and that I could easily talk. But then there was this other side voice that said, “No, get the pasta, this is your opportunity to eat something really great.” So, I got the pasta.
I was wearing a gray suit, which may have been a little snug in the waist in the first place, and I ate so much during that lunch that I had to unbutton my skirt. I was subtle about it and he didn’t notice, but by the end of lunch I had totally forgotten that I’d unbuttoned my skirt. I stood up and was about to leave the table, and felt the skirt falling down. Luckily, I realized it quickly and sat right back down to button the skirt. I was laughing so hard inside and my mentor didn’t notice anything.
I remember this story not because it was embarrassing but because it taught me to trust my initial instincts. I know myself deeply. The first thought I have is typically the right one. I may go through all of these other iterations and overthink it, but I have come to learn that I am better off when I go with that first thought. My internal GPS is usually spot on.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you tell us a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
“In the absence of information, people make stuff up.”
This is an important one because when they make it up, they typically go negative and then we have to spend time unraveling all of these untruths. What I’ve learned, and what I tell other people, is there’s no need to have people filling in the gaps of information when we can literally just tell the story.
I learned this firsthand when Procter and Gamble offered me the global media role. They explained that they been trying for seven years to centralize the operations, but hadn’t been successful. I was wondering why they thought I could make it work if no one else had been able to, and started to question if I was being set up for success. They had confidence that I had the skills to bring this thing to life.
As soon as I started talking to people within the organization, I began to understand what had been going on. The reason for the change had never been fully explained. No one understood fully why the company wanted to bring all of this purchasing into one place. So, people started to create their own narratives around the world because it’s a global organization, and they were all negative. “Oh, we’re going to lose our job.” “Oh, this is going to be a reduction in force.” “Oh, we have to totally change how we do our work.”
It was none of that. It was about being able to buy more effectively and efficiently. This was the largest advertiser in the world, but it wasn’t achieving efficiencies aligned with being the largest advertiser, so it couldn’t harness its collective influence. Now, put that all together in a group whose expertise is buying and it’s far more powerful.
It had not been explained in these terms over the years and so people filled in the blanks. My job was to simply tell the story. I went around the world to explain it. I showed up and was fully present and engaged and I told the story. And I think that was a big part of why we were able to be successful in establishing the organization within a little over a year.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I think it has to be my parents. My older siblings thought I got away with murder but that wasn’t it. The notion my parents planted inside of me very early was “Sonia, if you are willing to do the work, if you are willing to operate in excellence, you can do anything that you put your mind to.” I carried that with me throughout high school and my college years and into the workplace. I think it prevented me from feeling like I was in a box. I know that sometimes other people will put you in a box. But if you stay there, it’s because you allow them to keep you there. I didn’t do that. And so, yes, I was an executive in purchasing, but I studied marketing and I had ideas and I was confident in sharing them because I wouldn’t stay in my proverbial box.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I remember I was pitching what I wanted to do for a particular company and the CEO looked at me and said, “You are the only person in my entire career that has ever come to me and talked about love in the workplace.” I think this is what makes my company stand out — the values I founded it on and the values I bring to the work. Talking about leading with love from a business perspective and how this drives growth and profitability is unique, but I’m just bringing my authentic self and doing what I feel called to do.
When I think about my work on the integration of Gillette and P&G, which was the largest coming together in the consumer products industry, the most important thing I did was make sure that respect and love was the cornerstone of how we connected. I don’t have to know you, I can have just met you and care about you as another human, and that’s the reason I want to serve you with excellence.
This is the philosophy on which I founded my company, and this is what I work with executives to understand. What does it look like to serve with excellence and how can it engage and excite your workforce so that they move through to their own next level of excellence?
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
My newest program is called the Power Hourish. We virtually go to a city and offer a six-week course, once a week for about 80 minutes, in which we focus on mental, emotional, and physical health. I launched it last May, toward the beginning of the pandemic, because I wanted to help people understand how to stay strong in the midst of something none of us had ever experienced. I partnered with two amazing women, Dr. Shantel Thomas and Iris T. London, because collaboration is a big part of what I like to do. Dr. Shantel works on the mental health (the mind), and she talks about how to have vision and sit in a quiet space. She helps people really envision what they want in their lives. I work on the emotional health (the soul), and talk about a lot of things, including forgiveness which is so hard for so many people, but necessary in order to move forward in our lives. And Iris does the physical (the body); we exercise together online. We’re on the fifth round now and the feedback has been fantastic.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I left the corporate world, even before I started my business, I launched a foundation called The Sister Accord®️. The three pillars of our mission are educating girls and women,
enlightening girls and women of the Power of Sisterhood, and eradicating bullying and violence against girls and women. This really grew out of my experience in the corporate world and what I said earlier about how women are socialized at young ages to be mean to each other. Mean girls grow up to be mean women and mean bosses. Nearly 50% of the U.S. workforce is female, and it’s essential to the viability and profitability of any company or organization to ensure that an environment of collaboration, not competition, is promoted. I wanted to help women, in particular, understand how to create this environment and live the values of sisterhood.
Our Tea Party Programs help young women understand the importance of strong, healthy, positive relationships with other women as part of their personal development and their development as exceptional leaders. Our goal is to have participants learn how to love themselves and each other through a combination of self-awareness exercises and leadership development training. Together we call this #theheartwork™️.
Participants in these events are a combination of younger women and those already established in their careers, and the results have been amazing. We’ve had people say it helped them overcome anxiety disorders and past trauma, we’ve had some come together and start businesses with each other, and we’ve forged so many ongoing mentor-mentee relationships. We don’t ask people to make this kind of commitment, it just happens because we give them the safe space to connect with each other. These events really do change the trajectory of women’s lives.
In addition to changing women’s lives and improving relationships, my goal is for these events to be a pipeline of talent for our partner companies in the form of co-op/internship opportunities during high school and college, and, ultimately, permanent positions upon graduation.
Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I think these are the five things I would choose based on what I’ve seen in my career.
- All boats rise. Oftentimes when you say equity and inclusion, people automatically start to shut down because they think that somebody else is going to be disadvantaged. I first noticed the issues with women not playing nice with each other when I was at Ford Motor Company which was, as you can imagine, a male-dominated industry. So, I started a group for women, an employee resources group, and we called it Sisters Who Are Buying, or SWAB (I know I probably could have picked a more attractive marketing name). I really just wanted women to be able to come together and share best practices and learnings. I asked a mentor of mine to help me so I could show support from leadership. The truth is that at first leadership was skeptical because they worried about singling out one group, but when I explained my vision, they understood helping one group is good for all of us. And, after a while, other people created additional employee resources groups.
- Diverse employees can be ambassadors to communities of customers. One of the groups SWAB connected with, which already existed, was the Ford African ancestry group. Together, we started to think of some unique ways that the group could help Ford Motor Company speak to the Black community, and we realized we could help people understand why they should buy a Ford, given all the car options that were out there. We started an incentive program that extended our employee discounts to people in the African-American community and we were able to directly drive sales of vehicles.
- Diverse employees can tap into additional talent. Another aspect of the work I spent a lot of time on when I was at Ford was recruiting more diverse talent. It was too easy for leadership to say, “we’re doing okay, we have Sonia, she’s a Black female” and check a box. But I didn’t want to be the only one and I wanted to leave a legacy. I started recruiting from Florida A&M University which is an HBCU that I had attended, because I wanted to show that there’s some really amazing talent out there, like, forget what color they are, these are just amazing people with amazing talent. I got the company to put some money into it and we started a relationship with the university. I actually took the CEO and some of the other leaders to Florida. As I moved on, I did that for all of the companies I went to as a way to get them engaged in how we can drive diversity, equity, and inclusion, and bring in different people with different experiences.
- Diverse staff helps retain diverse staff. The other piece of this is retention. You want to attract great people, but if you have a revolving door because some people don’t feel that they can be successful there, that’s a problem. As I said earlier, I didn’t want to be the only Black female and feel like my employers were satisfied with having me on board. It’s important to create environments where everyone, regardless of who they are or what their background is, has the opportunity to win.
- Working with diverse people brings innovation and creativity. My grandmother used to have a saying, “make a way out of no way,” which really means that when you don’t have resources, you have to be creative. I think when we don’t have diverse workforces and don’t partner with small women- and minority- owned businesses, we miss out on a lot of innovation. When I first started at Gillette, there was a gentleman who owned a temporary staffing agency. He told me that he had been trying for years to become an official vendor with the company but he kept getting turned down. I was new, so I asked around and people kept telling me that his agency did not have the wherewithal or the structure to effectively serve Gillette. I think they made a lot of assumptions that simply weren’t true. They wanted to stick with larger, more established staffing services. But here’s the thing, when I dug a little deeper and found out who had actually been sending temporary workers, it was his company. He was doing the work all along. With that information, I was able to get approval to officially bring his company onboard. It proved to be a very good decision because he was able to drive greater innovation, efficiencies, and savings.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive?
I think we spend too much time on weaknesses and what people aren’t doing instead of spending time identifying and strengthening their strengths. As a leader, you have to find a way to unleash each employee’s superpowers. People come with a lot of really amazing talents and skills, but oftentimes in structured organizations, they don’t know how to or feel like they can’t use those skills to drive success for themselves. As a leader, you have to be willing to engage with people deeply so you can recognize their strengths and leverage them. The truth is that a lot of people don’t even recognize their own superpowers — I ask people and so many will say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure I have any.” Great leaders can see the greatness in others and inspire them to tap into it. When you identify something someone does well and tell them “you have a way with numbers” or “you have a lot of wisdom,” you actually speak it into them. Just sharing it can sometimes be the one thing that actually unleashes it.
What advice would you give to other business leaders about how to manage a large team?
Be present. Leaders are pulled in so many different directions and there’s so much going on. Trying to keep up with all of these things and then have your own life at home is very hard. What I have found to be most effective is being present in whatever I’m doing at that moment. If I was talking to the team in Spain, I made it all about the team in Spain. I learned how to be fully present and not thinking about two or three steps down the road. That really allowed me to engage with all of my team in a way that helped them to understand how important they were to me and led them to feel empowered to do great work. It helped that this was in the days before the pandemic when I could travel and be with people, but it’s a lesson we can all take with us even when we’re on the phone or Zoom. Make sure you are fully present and engaged with what they are talking to you about. We’re not good at multitasking. Once I learned to focus on one thing, it made a huge difference in terms of how I showed up as a leader.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC Funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Warren Buffet. He seems wise, humble, and kind. So many people think that to be successful or wealthy, you have to be mean and undermine others, but he’s just the total antithesis of that which is what I’m trying to teach through my foundation. And, he also has done so much with and for philanthropy. He seems to know when enough personal wealth is enough, even for his children. He really embodies the values that I try to live every day, so to be able to sit down with him would be a blessing.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these excellent insights. We wish you continued success in your great work.