The Lenovo Way: Yolanda Conyers on Transforming Corporate Culture
On a hot afternoon in August, Yolanda Conyers is shown around the headquarters of Austin tech firm SparkCognition. As the tour moves from one department to the next, she chats with employees about their various projects.
A group of engineers working for SkyGrid, the AI company’s new joint venture with Boeing, explains how the intelligence software they’re developing will help manage larger volumes of air traffic. Another team, working in a machinery room, shows her the prototype of a large drone that will be able to carry heavy payloads across long distances.
Dressed in a tailored fuchsia jacket, black skirt, and pumps, Conyers may be a C-level executive at Lenovo, but she is clearly in her element. Once a test engineer at Dell, she relishes the opportunity to engage with other engineers, asking them questions like what their employee numbers were when they were hired. “I’m so into that. I was employee number 3,000 at Dell,” she tells a group on a lunch break in the kitchen.
A Family Affair
When the tour reaches the IT department, Conyers’ interest takes a maternal turn. This is where her middle son, Cameron, a sophomore at the University of Tulsa, has been interning for the summer.
“Is Cameron holding his own? Doing what he needs to do? You’re pushing him? Is he a team player?” she drills her son’s colleagues.
“Absolutely,” they respond. “It’s been great having him here. He’s been extremely helpful.”
When someone jokingly suggests she leave a note for her son, who’s not in the office at the time, she grabs a Post-It and pen.
“He’s gonna die,” she says, mischievously sticking a note scrawled with “Mom was here” on the computer screen at her son’s workstation.
In these small acts, Conyers displays what many consider her greatest asset: an ability to connect with others. It’s a quality that’s helped her navigate a nearly 30-year career in the high-tech industry.
For the past dozen of those years, she’s been vice president of global human resources and chief diversity officer at Lenovo, steering the tech giant’s human resource strategies, and its diversity and inclusion practices, all over the world.
Last October, she added another title to her portfolio of responsibilities, when she was named president of Lenovo’s first global foundation, which aims to expand the company’s mission of inclusion by providing access to STEM education in disadvantaged communities. It’s a daunting workload, but Conyers welcomes the challenges.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” she says. “I live by that. I don’t want to be stagnant, don’t want to be stale.”
Yolanda Conyers grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, the youngest of seven children. She credits her parents for providing her and her siblings with “a very solid foundation and great role models.”
Her father worked for 40 years on a merchant ship, moving his way up from sweeping the galley to becoming the chief steward, while her mother stayed home and took care of the children, eventually going back to school to get her GED and then become a teacher’s assistant.
“I learned from her how to balance work and take care of the home,” Conyers says. “And I watched him teach himself how to read and how to create menus for the ship. He didn’t let anything get in the way of learning.”
When she was a little girl, her father told her there were three things he wanted her to do in life: “get an education, travel around the world, and embrace the unfamiliar.”
Embracing the Unfamiliar
Her first experience embracing the unfamiliar, she recalls, came when she was in middle school. Having attended an all-black church and an all-black elementary school, she started being bused to a predominantly white school.
She took her father’s advice and went into the situation “with an open heart.”
She learned then that trust was the key to building friendships.
When lenovo offered her the job of Chief Diversity Officer, she saw it as an opportunity to apply what she had Learned from her own experiences to a cause dear to her heart.
Her experiences with integration extended into high school. A popular student, she was elected vice president of the student council. But her aptitude for excelling came at a price.
Math and Science
“I would often have to deal with my black friends taunting me. ‘Oh, you’re hanging with the white kids.’ Or, ‘You’re talking proper. You’re changing.’ I think it’s something that under-represented communities have to grapple with, how you stay true to your culture and to who you are as you navigate a working environment where everyone else is different,” she says.
Gifted in math and science, Conyers was encouraged by a high school teacher to enroll in his computer science class. She was immediately hooked. “I like process and problem-solving, and programming is step by step by step,” she says. “I loved the challenge of getting that code to work to get the desired outcome.”
While majoring in computer science at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, Conyers spent three summers interning at Texas Instruments (TI) in Austin. By graduation, she’d been offered a job as a systems analyst. In 1991, she left TI to work for Dell, becoming the first African American female software engineer at the PC maker.
Again, she embraced the unfamiliar and established herself as an employee who gets results and works collaboratively. She advanced to leadership positions, moving from the product group to procurement to human resources to even a stint in sales and marketing.
Longtime friend and mentor Margaret Keys, a retired communications strategist based in Austin, met Conyers when she was a young engineer rising through the ranks. Over the years, Keys has watched her friend develop both professionally and personally, while remaining true to herself.
“Yolanda has a unique quality in that she has an extraordinary emotional quotient that allows her to move into different settings — not be a chameleon, but to read it and still stay authentic and warm,” Keys says. “She has that sharp engineering mind also. It’s real interesting to watch as she moves into a professional setting. She’s always poised and always warm, always connecting. And she’s wholehearted — that’s rare when somebody gets to her position. She’s very real.”
Conyers calls her time at Dell “fantastic.” As the company grew, she grew too, she says. But after 15 years, she was ready for a change. She took a year and a half off work to stay home. (She and her husband, Chris, a now-retired tax auditor at the state comptroller’s office, raised three boys.)
She also spent the time reflecting on what she wanted to do next. When Lenovo offered her the job of chief diversity officer, she saw it as an opportunity to apply what she had learned from her own experiences to a cause dear to her heart.
“First of all, I’m glad I had those experiences as a child, because I had to learn to navigate and work with people who are different from me and have different cultural backgrounds,” she says. “In the workplace, you don’t always work with the same type of people, so the ability to bring diverse people together and leverage my engineering skills to solve problems, I’m so passionate about that … and now I get the chance to do that on a global level.”
In 2005, Lenovo, the No. 1 PC maker in China, acquired the IBM PC, making it the third-largest PC company in the world. While the acquisition set Lenovo on a path to becoming a global technology company, it created a unique challenge: how to integrate the international workforces. Not only was there an obvious language barrier, but there were significant cultural differences and disparate managerial styles.
Conyers started her job 18 months after the acquisition, and it was apparent that the cultural differences needed sorting out if the company was to succeed globally. First, the company conducted a cultural audit that would assess how employees were experiencing the post-acquisition company culture.
“We really had to get down to the basics and begin to understand the differences and what we were dealing with, as well as the similarities,” Conyers says.
Analyzing the Problem
The results showed that there was a serious lack of trust among employees.
Skepticism and anxiety, often due to miscommunication or misunderstandings, led to negative assumptions among coworkers. (For instance, Chinese employees found some of the working styles of American cohorts to be “abrasive” and “confrontational,” while American workers sometimes perceived their Chinese colleagues as “passive” or even “secretive.”)
To fix the problem, the next step involved educating the workforce, including Lenovo’s CEO.
“It has to start with leadership,” Conyers says. “They have to role-model it, and then everyone else will follow suit.”
The Conyers Fix
Workshops and executive coaching sessions were held to train leadership on how to bridge the East-meets-West divide. The training revolved around trust and guanxi, a Chinese term for building strong relationships. Protocols for engagement were also created by blending what worked best in both cultures.
At the executive level, C-suite employees were encouraged to live in other countries. Conyers herself accepted an international assignment and moved to Beijing for three years with her family. She immersed herself in the culture, learning Mandarin and Chinese customs in order to help bridge the eastern and western cultures within the company.
But there was another issue that the cultural audit revealed: Employees felt the company lacked a central culture, a “one team” spirit.
This led Conyers and the leadership team to develop and implement four core values for the company: “serving customers,” “innovation and entrepreneurial spirit,” “trust and integrity,” and “teamwork across cultures.” By setting up these values as a guide for employees, Lenovo moved closer to a single company culture.
It was a slow journey that took at least five years, according to Conyers, who documents the unprecedented process in The Lenovo Way, a book she co-authored in 2014 with her colleague and mentor Gina Qiao, who, at the time, served as senior vice president of human resources, now presiding over Lenovo’s marketing and corporate strategy as senior vice president and chief marketing officer.
Listening is Key
The work continues today, with annual employee surveys taken to gauge employee engagement. “You have to stay on it, tweaking and listening to your employees and looking at your business results,” Conyers says. That dedication seems to be paying off Since Conyers joined Lenovo, its workforce has increased from 23,000 to 57,000 employees, working in 60 countries, speaking more than 100 languages, and serving customers in 180 markets.
The company now boasts mobile and cloud infrastructure businesses with annual revenue of more than $50 billion. “You can see the results there,” Conyers says. “You can grow and expand when you’re open to diversity and inclusion.”
As Lenovo continues to branch out into new businesses, including artificial intelligence and facial recognition software, and acquire new businesses, Conyers is ready to help lead the company toward its intelligent transformation and fulfilling its vision of smarter technology for all.
A Sense of Belonging
As she explains it, diversity means unique attributes that make a person who they are, whereas inclusion means creating an environment where everyone can show up as they are and fully participate.
She says the question now needs to be: “How do you create a sense of belonging, an environment of respect, so that you can really tap into those skills and experiences and that diversity that you bring to a company?”
She and her team have promoted initiatives that include workshops like the Women’s Leadership Development Program (WLDP) that offers developmental tools and training to high-potential female employees ready for executive roles, and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), organizations within the company that represent different employee populations to create communities of shared identity.
Dilip Bhatia, vice president and chief customer experience officer, serves as executive sponsor of one of these ERGs — Lenovo Employees of Asian Descent — and has found the program helpful.
“Employees can come in and talk to different ERGs if they have any challenges, questions, concerns,” he says. “So, there are a number of resources available for employees to make sure they feel inclusive.”
A Lasting Impact
When speaking to Conyers’ colleagues, you get the sense that she is part of the reason the company has been so successful in its diversity and integration goals. Her people skills and emphasizing the value of trust in working relationships does not go unnoticed.
“She’s a fantastic listener,” Bhatia says. “She’s also very pragmatic, not just looking at the old way of doing things but open to new ideas. And then she has a sense of urgency to move forward.”
“She’s open and transparent in her leadership,” says Torod Neptune, chief communications officer, who has been at Lenovo for two years. “She’s also visionary in terms of not just taking the company forward but also taking those people that have the benefit of being within her sphere of influence. Conyers is very passionate about her work and the cause that she’s mostly engaged in, which is driving the culture organizationally, the diversity and inclusion agenda, the leadership growth development, all those things.”
With her new role as president of Lenovo’s global foundation, Conyers hopes to democratize STEM programs. She’s overseeing partnerships with nonprofits like NAF (formerly the National Academy Foundation) and its yearly coding contest, where high school students are provided mobile phones and other technology to develop new apps.
And there’s more on the horizon. Lenovo now has a goal to increase the number of women in leadership positions worldwide to 20% by 2020. Given her track record, Conyers seems like a good bet to find the solutions that get the desired results. Most likely she’ll do it as she’s tried to approach her work throughout her life — heeding those lessons her father taught her long ago.
“The values that he instilled in me very early — embrace the unfamiliar, jump out there, travel — I watched him and saw him be successful,” she says. “That gives me the confidence to do what I do today.”
We asked Conyers her top tips for corporate success:
- Have a defined culture to support a clear strategy, and leaders who are going to engage and lead the culture. But remember that it’s the responsibility of everyone in the company to drive the culture.
- Have a “zero mindset.” What I mean by that is your past successes don’t always determine your future successes. So be willing to start from scratch.
- Be self-aware of the prejudices and biases that we all have. Check yourself, and ask for feedback, because feedback is a gift. Leverage that knowledge and information to make yourself better and more inclusive.
- Build relationships. Everyone is inspired and motivated differently, so if you can begin to understand that, you can get the best out of your team. Ask for help. Leverage your resources when confronting challenges.