How thinking like a global citizen can improve your ethical decision-making: An interview with Sony’s Cheryl Goodman

Joining me on this week’s episode is Cheryl Goodman, the head of Corporate Communication for Sony Electronics North America. For more than 20 years, Cheryl has pushed the boundaries of innovation by expanding cognitive diversity by including more women in technology.

In this fascinating interview, Cheryl discusses:

Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about yourself and your career?

Boy does time fly when you’re having fun. I came from the broadcast news business originally in San Diego, the CBS and the ABC affiliate, but I always knew I wanted to be a journalist. I had a knack for ratting on people, I guess that’s what you could say, as a kid. My sisters would tell you. I always wanted to be the one to stand for truth and justice and transparency, and I had a big mouth.

So, it’s a good job fit; but in a nutshell, broadcast gave a great primer for a lot of the startups that were really prevalent in the early days of my PR career. Number one being MP3.com, which many may recall was really not only sued multiple times for digital rights management violations, but by every major music company including Sony who now owns EMI.

So, it’s a little poetic that I’m here at Sony, but the net-net is the fine line of vaporware was always a challenge in the startup world when you’re really trying to push value proposition of products and really trying to launch new concepts. I learned very early that while my skills in broadcast journalism and journalism in general would serve well as a communicator, that the boundaries were always uncomfortably pushed in those early days of startup work. But I was able to manage successfully.

I then went on to Qualcomm, which you may know is leading the era in 5G, and was there for 10 years. I’ll skip a few steps just for sake of time, but went to run an organization called Athena, which is a nonprofit for executive women in STEM. And it also is a foundation to give back to young women that want to explore and be supported in STEM career.

That was a great way to blend not only the passion but to have that great platform of social good, leveraging tech for good. And at that time, it was really, really relevant five years ago. Now it is an everyday narrative. It wasn’t so much then, but the net-net is that work actually led me to Sony.

Sony was a big sponsor of Athena. And so, when I met with Mike Fasulo, my boss, president and COO of Sony North America, we became fast friends. And next thing you know, I’m running his corporate communications and corporate social responsibility. And so, I’ve been fortunate to stay in beautiful San Diego and still work for global organizations, international organizations, that pushed the boundaries and I’m pretty happy in what I’m doing.

It sounds like your career has covered everything from startups to nonprofits to large multinationals. So, thinking about that, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I think that each job presented a unique challenge and really, I believe, it’s driven by the urgency and business conditions set by the leader. I can tell you that in organizations such as Sony, they’re such a transparent company on so many levels. So, the challenges have been few in the last three years. But in the early startup days, that’s where the conflict really came to a peak.

When we were launching a series of services for digital music, digital rights management was pretty nascent and there was a raging debate about the ethical nature of listening to music that you hadn’t purchased. The scenario with MP3.com was different than Napster because Napster was, you would find it and download it illegally. You had it digitally. You acquired it digitally, whereas MP3.com had a technology that in order to unlock the digital music, you had to have a physical CD, which was kind of your proof of purchase.

And so, I always felt very good about that, but over time, we knew that that privilege was being abused. And so, I was conflicted because, at the end of the day, I felt like this is a valid approach for the industry. It gave the artist a tremendous amount of opportunity to grow their market but then, it was being abused.

The ethical challenge for me is many things in our daily lives can be used for good and/or evil and the utility of it is so fundamental to how we listen to music today we had to balance the greater good versus cannibalizing of creative IP. So, the conflict at that time was, are we taking from artists? And I think we came pretty close on the ethical edge; but in hindsight, we know that the entire music industry as a whole has grown in ways that I don’t think that many expected it to as a result of digitization and sharing.

How did you work through that to come up with the business strategy?

That’s a great question. Two things, I would say, as it was quite early in my career and I was a young executive, I definitely had a lot of pressure and influence to let the technology speak for itself, which meant that sometimes you didn’t bring alongside your industry organizations that may have helped you guys navigate that. Sometimes you didn’t use and leverage legal guidance to conclude what would be fair and balanced.

That clarity really only comes many years later when you look back and you say, “At the end of the day, absence of this technology, if it didn’t exist, this market wouldn’t flourish as it is now. It would be completely different.” At the time, it was really trying to navigate how do you let the technology speak for itself, and then the market will follow, and then the legislation will follow.

At the end of the day, it came together in the right way. We supported in the right way; but at the time, I didn’t have the perspective that certainly the CEO that I worked with at that time had on what that potential could be.

What are you seeing as some of the key communications ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

There are plenty. At the end of the day, I believe it starts with vaporware, overstating product capabilities, and hiding or suppressing features that maybe aren’t so good. The industry at large has to grapple with this every day. What that really exacerbates this is that truth is really in crisis.

The democratization of media and a plethora of digital platforms has really turned publishing and publishing houses’ revenues upside down. And it’s great because there’s more share of voice, but it’s not so great in the sense that curated journalism, the commitment to truth, gets compromised.

So, I think it’s an industry-wide issue, but more practically speaking, we address it by working with product managers and executives to let them know at the end of the day, truth always wins. It really does, and calibrating expectations always is going to win. Most people want to do the right thing, and it’s just working alongside them to focus on long-term gain instead of short-term gain.

You mentioned vaporware a few times. How do you avoid announcing vaporware?

I think it starts a year and a half before launch when the product comes out and there’s an articulation of when that time will come out. As you get closer and closer to those launch timeframes and you start to see key features fall to the wayside and it’s like, “Okay, we’re launching or aiming to meet a date. What’s more important, meeting the date or meeting customers’ expectations?”

This is a very legitimate conflict because first to market is a premium. Whether it’s a premium in revenue is debatable, but it’s a premium in perception. The software and consumer electronics industry has a good deal of one-upmanship.

The solution is finding a balance and calibrating expectations early and often. Also, working under embargo with a journalist, letting them know what your intent is, and maybe put less focus on whether it launches in the fourth quarter on the 31st at 11:59 to meet that deadline. It is calibrating expectations and being that voice of reason in the room.

It’s not always a popular voice. The corporate communications person is always looking out for the greater good of the brand. There’s conflict sometimes, and again speaking generally, not specific to one company. But there’s often conflict between product PR people and corporate communications. The product PR people are measured on success of the product, and corporate PR pros are measured on success of the brand and the overall way of doing business.

At the end of the day, this profession has to understand what the potential issues are going to be always. And so, this is just another one of those things that you’ve got to be ready to negotiate and be the voice of reason.

How do you as a communicator fight against the truth being compromised when people are making up rumors about Sony or your other companies that you know are untrue? How do you fight back?

And I love the way that you phrase it, fight back, because I’m a fighter in my spirit and the methodology is really rising above it. We oftentimes, don’t fight back. Michelle Obama has a great phrase, “I’ll be the eagle flying above and you can be below digging in the trash.”

So, that is my philosophy because you could go all day long tit for tat over, “This is true, that isn’t.” We don’t engage, but what we do instead is where there are advocates that represent objectivity and balance, we curate relationships early and often and seek feedback.

One of the great things that Sony does that I really have never witnessed in any other company is when they go to launch products, the product managers in Tokyo will sit down, and they’ll talk about what features actually works and don’t work for the consumers. We bring in actual users, not typical industry analysts or press. We find a super-user of a product and say, “Would you please spend time with this product? Tell me what features work and what don’t work.”

An example of that is James Cameron with the VENICE camera. He had offered some feedback that actually drove a complete redesign of the VENICE camera. And so, things like that where you’re really saying, “We really all want a win of this consumer product. What’s the best way to do that, is to go straight to the customer and to be advised by that.” Too often we measure our efficacy through how the media reports it, and that’s not always the consumer experience. That story doesn’t often get told.

So, I believe that in this new media era, credible, objective journalists, are at a premium and we need to develop relationships. Secondarily, I believe corporate communications teams should be comprised of former journalists because they’re going to come bring that story out objectively as much as possible, and where there’s an absence of good storytelling, that’s what corporate communications should be doing alongside with the other truth tellers.

You’ve talked about Athena. What can everybody do to move diversity, inclusion and equity from talk into action?

Yeah, that’s a great question and it’s a big question. There’s a ton of methodologies that one could apply to this. My fundamental belief is what is measured matters. As we look at how do we increase more women in leadership, how do we increase more women and people of different ancestral backgrounds, how do we increase that representation in corporate America, the naysayers will say this is a pipeline issue, that there simply aren’t enough, but that’s not what the data says.

What the data says is that by the eighth grade, most girls have already made up their mind that they do not like math. They will not go a STEM route because it’s something that they can’t do, and it’s pretty sad statistic. There are other instances from an all-girls’ school where there is no comparison to boys in their classroom or the fear of speaking and the statistic is actually almost double for women going into STEM careers.

So, we know it’s not an issue of natural ability or natural inclination. It’s something that’s happening as women or girls are being raised where somehow they self-select not to do these powerful careers. And so, in my work at Athena, and I’m very passionate about it obviously because I went from an executive high-paying position at Qualcomm to being the top person in a startup with a big mission and a fraction of the budget, you get paid and sleeping well. You get paid in knowing that you’re making a difference. And I think that that is something that has colored how I look at everything relative to diversity and inclusion. It’s the data. Why isn’t this happening?

We actually had a team in Sony that looks at this from not only a data perspective, we look at it from our own employee composition numbers. We look at it like what are we doing in the community to support the activation and inspiration of diversity and engineering. We also look at it in our jobs, how are our jobs, how we recruit for a job. We look at it on how we interview people, the panels we comprise when we bring in people.

So, we’re really trying to be methodical and understand the process just as we would do with any technology product or any software product. We’re really looking at all the data and analyzing it, and I think that’s what’s not being done by the industry. It’s common to dismiss that, “Oh, well, it’s just a quota program and it’s just a pipeline. We simply just don’t have enough women and it is what it is.” But it really could be different if we were intentional about it. As a community, it’s critically important because it has to do with our national health and having those high tech jobs.

I approach this as an emerging market. Just like you would approach any product launch in an emerging market, women are an emerging market in tech. And we do have a shortage of technologists and engineers. We are losing our competitive edge from a national standpoint, and the best way to buttress that is to really leverage what we have here to really support women and people of color to succeed.

So, you mentioned talking about your employees and really being involved globally. And that’s one area I’m always interested in discussing…how do you deal with regional variations in expectations of ethics?

That’s a big question.

So, a little preface before I respond. Working for a global multinational that’s based in Tokyo makes me perceive myself as a citizen of the globe. I’m a global citizen. It’s a very empowering way to think. I’ve never worked for a multinational, certainly not a Japanese one. I’ve always been in high tech and there is a sensitivity, a great nationalism, which is important. I’m also a proud American.

But the net-net is that when you identify yourself as a global citizen, you need to adapt and understand all the other cultures to ensure business continuity and success of product launches. It covers everything from basic communications from a press release side or logistics or any number of things, it will all best serve to take a global perspective. That said, the nation of Japan has a pretty tremendous legacy where women were considered secondary, and there are issues not so different from U.S. in the sense that there’s workforce shortages, right?

And when you need talent, and recruitment and retention are key efforts for your organizations, you have to ask yourself, “Who am I overlooking or why are we having a shortage? We don’t have a population shortage, but we keep having the same shortages.” So, there’s that opportunity that’s pervasive and probably more pronounced in Asia because of the cultural mores of so many years. So, how do we work with that? How do we combat that?

I think Sony does a tremendous job of acknowledging that there’s opportunity to grow here. Our CEO Kenichiro Yoshida is quite a visionary man. He’s published our purpose and values across the company, 115,000 employees. And for the first time in our purpose and values, diversity is a key tenet and I just loved it. I loved because it’s diversity across many areas. It was diversity in business models. It is diversity in product and diversity in people.

And all of this means something transactional still and valuable to the consumer because we are crowdsourcing diversity to come up with the best solution in people and in products and again, in business plans.

In the intro you mentioned the word “cognitive” diversity. It is my favorite word because it speaks to that it’s not diversity for sake of diversity. It’s like, “Oh, I like things that are different and that’s why it’s diversity because diverse groups are stronger. They’re more profitable.” This is why diversity is a good business tenet.

So, when our global CEO, Kenichiro Yoshida, launched that, I was so proud to work for a company that a) is aware that there’s opportunities to improve and b) articulated that in such a way that made it a corporate initiative. And that’s why we do look at top-down what are we doing as a company and how could we get better. It goes back to what’s measured matters and we do that and we’re aware. And so, it’s a good place to be because it certainly has not been that way in many other companies that I’ve been on.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I wish I could be more clever and insightful in this response, but it is simply the truth will set you free. Basing everything off of the best intent and to be transparent. I don’t know that I picked that up in the working world. It was the way I was raised and the orientation that I take and is why I went into journalism. I value the truth and I took an oath to tell the truth.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:

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