D&I Is Good For Business: A Conversation with Yolanda Conyers

By Evan J. Cutts

Quality executive leadership in Diversity and Inclusion amounts to more than mission statements and bottom lines; an exceptional leader displays empathy and is willing to step outside their comfort zone in order to meet a fellow person halfway. Two years into Lenovo’s global expansion, Yolanda Conyers joined the company as its inaugural Chief Diversity Officer. Tasked with the responsibility of integrating corporate cultures from the East and West, Conyers set out to become a holistic leader and champion of diversity.

The Co-Author of “The Lenovo Way — Managing a Diverse Global Company for Optimal Performance” pioneered the inclusive and empowering company culture that has helped Lenovo remain a leader in the tech space. Additionally, she serves as the President of the Lenovo Foundation, Lenovo’s philanthropic arm that seeks to expand access to STEM education in underserved communities. In the following Q&A, Yolanda Conyers delves into her leadership practices, D&I philosophy, and more. Check it out!

Evan J. Cutts: Can you tell me about your roles as Chief Diversity Officer and President of Lenovo Foundation as well as your role as VP of Global Human Resources?  

Yolanda Conyers: I came to Lenovo in 2007 in the Chief Diversity Officer position – it was really the first time a company of Chinese heritage had hired a Diversity Officer role, and it was a key move for Lenovo as they expanded on to the global stage in the tech industry. Two years prior, in 2005, Lenovo had acquired IBM’s PC business and ThinkPad product line and the company was really grappling with the challenge of how to integrate those two distinct cultures of East and West. My role was to work closely with the executive leadership team to identify a strategy to designate the set of values and beliefs that would guide our daily behaviors under a consistent team culture. 

Over time, my role has expanded to include VP of Global HR.  In this role, I lead a team of HR Business Partners who work closely with business leaders representing, Research, Information and Technology (IT), Lenovo Capital Investment Group, Legal, Finance, Marketing, Strategy, and Human Resources.  The HR role is a great opportunity for me to take my analytical skills as an engineer by training and combine it with my passion for championing diversity, to develop people programs and service strategies enhancing these organizations’ approach for positive business results.

13 years later, we’re now a $50 billion Fortune Global 500 company with 57,000 employees serving 180 markets worldwide. We’ve come a long way, and on that journey, I also acquired the title of President of the Lenovo Foundation, our philanthropic arm that we re-launched in Fall 2018 to provide under-served communities around the world with access to technology and STEM education. The mission aligns with our diversity and inclusion strategy as well as our corporate vision of bringing Smarter Technology for All. 

All these roles are intertwined allowing me to solve complex business problems and lead diverse teams.

Looking back on nearly 30 years of executive leadership between two top tech companies, how has your perspective on leadership shifted? What do you value now that you may not have then? 

I look at leadership a lot more holistically now – not just in the context of “What am I doing in this role,” but now looking at “What am I doing to be well-rounded in and out of the office?”

I’ve come to know a few great leaders and I find that the best ones strike a balance in the way they manage their time and energy, both at work and in their personal lives at home.  Something I didn’t value as much as an early-career professional that I take very seriously now is better self-care through exercise and meditation. Early on I traveled frequently and worked very long hours and didn’t really make time to be sure my cup was “full” so to speak, and that I was taking care of me. I’m a lot stricter these days about achieving that work-life balance and maintaining a higher degree of self-care.

Can you tell us a little more about the Lenovo Way?

The Lenovo Way is really Lenovo’s origin story and its recipe for becoming one of the biggest tech companies in the world. I mentioned that my role coming into the company was to help form a new company, essentially, once Lenovo acquired the IBM PC business in 2005. The Lenovo Way was kind of born out of the practices which established the ‘ground rules’ of our corporate behavior, how we work with one another, etc. It also tells the story of how my co-author, Gina Qiao and I, from very different backgrounds, learned to navigate our professional and personal lives during the early days of the integration. 

Early on we had to perform culture audits and really understand the landscape of our workforce – what are our similarities? What are our differences? We had to define diversity, why it matters, and maintain an understanding that, as we continue to grow and expand and move into additional countries, we’re going to have to continually look at how various cultures address diversity. Everyone’s perspective is different, and what is valued in one country may be completely different in another. It was important to then take that information and educate our workforce with training across the board, including our executives. We held workshops and coaching sessions about those differing perspectives and tried to give everyone context to why your colleagues from another country may react the way they do to your customs, why some things may be lost in translation, etc. – we really had to get people out of their local ‘box’ and get the entire team on board with this global mindset that’s inclusive of other ways of thinking and doing. 

There was some degree of immersion for employees at the executive level with a lot of our C-suite employees encouraged to live abroad. Gina and myself sort of ‘switched places’ so to speak – I went to live in Beijing for three years while she relocated to the U.S. to help give ourselves that added perspective of the other’s culture. That level of insight was really helpful and crucial for us to be able to guide our teams and help facilitate that integration at the beginning. We wrote about our journey together in a book we co-authored called The Lenovo Way. That being said, though, as we grew further as an organization, we didn’t just ‘export’ leadership to new countries to set up operations. We very much believe in a model of hiring teams and management that are local to the countries we do business in – 97% of business managers at Lenovo today are native to the countries they live and work in. 

The strategy and the vision that came out of that exercise are the values we still hold today. Even beyond that acquisition in 2005, we’ve continued to expand our reach in the tech industry with additional acquisitions and expansion into new markets over time, and every time we do that we have to open our doors a little wider to new world views and ways of doing business. It’s challenging, but it’s a crucial practice – we serve customers in 180 markets worldwide, so it’s important that our workforce and our guiding principles are inclusive and reflective of those customers from so many different backgrounds.  

Looking ahead, how can organizations ensure they remain relevant and effective in the D&I space as the socio-cultural landscape shifts in the US?

I think the best thing you can do to stay relevant and effective is to stay up to date on shifting trends. 

We utilize data a lot to drive our strategies. Internal data, like the information disclosed in our annual diversity & inclusion report, is utilized to keep us transparent, accountable, and on track toward our goals, but we also utilize external data that helps us to keep a pulse on what’s going on around the world. Specifically, my team actively evaluates attitudes on diversity and inclusion, particularly as it relates to the Workplace and, in Lenovo’s case, technology.

Last year, Lenovo began conducting global research on these attitudes around D&I and we use that to evolve our own approach.

This year, we continued our global research efforts and among the key insights we’re taking way is that, for the first time ever, we’re now looking at four generations in the workplace with the growing presence of Gen Z. They’re by far one of the most diverse and ‘activist’ of any generation we’ve seen, and they’re already very inclusive as a generation and exposed to more diversity at a young age than certainly those in the Boomer and maybe Gen X categories. They’re not afraid to call out and stand up to injustices and they’re carrying this attitude into everything they do – including the companies they choose to work for.

Furthermore, we’re seeing a continued evolution over the last two years of how “inclusion” is defined. It’s still about Gender and Race/Ethnicity as it traditionally has been, but the conversation is broadening its scope to include intellectual diversity, mental health and overall wellbeing, individuals with disabilities, among other factors.

As that scope widens, ours has to as well. Specifically, this year we’re doing a lot of work to increase our focus around individuals with disabilities. We recently announced a partnership with Haben Girma as our first accessibility and inclusion advisor who’s coming on board to help us with the development of policies for ensuring our technology is inclusive and considerate of diversity and those that are differently-abled; Haben Girma will also serve as an external sponsor of our newest employee resource group we’re launching to serve our community of employees with disabilities or employees and also our employees who are allies to the community or is a caretaker for someone with a disability. 

Who do you turn to for guidance and inspiration? Why? 

The guidance I got from my father growing up is something I always call back to when I need it. He really taught me a lot about stepping outside of my comfort zone. 

My father was a seaman who worked on merchant ships out of our hometown of Port Arthur, TX and he brought home a lot of lessons from his experiences – one of which was to ‘embrace the unfamiliar’ and the potential opportunities that it can bring. 

I grew up in an all-African American neighborhood, and during my elementary school years, I attended an all-African American school but later was bused to a predominately white school during both middle and high school years. I started seeking out leadership roles in my high school, running for vice-president of Student Council – it was definitely uncomfortable, but it opened a lot of doors for me and helped me to foster a lot of skills I’d need throughout my life. Same thing with situations like moving to Beijing after joining Lenovo. I’ve never spent a lot of time outside of my home state of Texas, so the prospect of picking up my family and moving around the world was really a huge uncertainty – but it brought an amazing opportunity for myself and my family to experience another culture and grow in my career.

What’s a common misconception about what you do?  

I think the biggest misconception specifically about Chief Diversity Officers is that we’re the only people (or team) in the company who are responsible for matters around diversity and inclusion.  

Diversity and inclusion are a part of your corporate culture. It has to be integrated throughout all organizations, at all levels, and by all individuals – particularly your key leaders. I am the Chief Diversity Officer in title, but our leadership in HR, Sales, Marketing, Design, Research, etc. are all charged with furthering these goals and upholding these pillars of our environment.

I also think that there’s this misconception that if the diversity and inclusion team sets a goal, and you achieve that goal, you’re ‘done’, the work is over – and that’s just not true.  Society is a living, breathing thing – it changes rapidly, and as it changes and fluctuates, your strategy has to do the same. If your goal is to ensure your company is reflective of the diversity of the world it serves, then you have to be committed to adjusting your strategy as the diversity of society continues to change over time.

Let’s talk about breakthrough moments. Are there any recent, hard-fought successes in your initiatives over at Lenovo that you’d like to shout out? 

While achieving goals doesn’t mean your work is ‘finished’, it is important to set them and to celebrate them when you achieve them.  

In 2018 we issued our first annual Diversity and Inclusion report to be more transparent about our demographics and also what we’re doing to be a champion for inclusion at the company. We outlined three key goals that we’re working to achieve by the end of 2020:

      • Impacting one million people worldwide through global philanthropy and volunteerism. 
      • Reaching 28% representation of traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups among executive roles in the United States. 
      • Reaching 20% representation of women in executive roles worldwide. 

I’m proud to say that we have achieved the first two of those three ahead of schedule. In this last quarter, we saw our percentage of under-represented racial and ethnic executives climb to 29.1% thanks to our efforts to attract, promote, and retain racially and ethnically diverse talent in the U.S. Our latest report on our data shows that we’re at 18.5% female executive representation and well on our way to achieving that third goal. 

Of course, once these have been achieved, it’s time to look ahead to new heights and challenge ourselves to keep growing in the right direction.