Dr. Relly Nadler: We are excited this week to have on our show, Robert Thomas. This show is about how your experiences and defining moments as an individual and leader, can help shape who you are as a leader. Robert J. Thomas is Executive Director of Accenture Institute for High Performance in Business, based in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the John R. Galvin Professor of Leadership at the Fletcher School of International Affairs at Tufts University. He is also the co-author with Warren Bennis of Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders. He’s also the author of Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experiences to be a Great Leader.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: As Relly said, today we have Bob Thomas. Bob does a great deal of writing, teaching and consulting in the area of leadership and organization design and transformational change. He has co-authored several aware winning books, including the one with Warren Bennis, Geeks and Geezers, which is one of the books on generation and gender differences, which we’ll explore today.
Along with his most recent book, he has published several articles on change with The Harvard Business Review, Harvard Management Update, and Fortune Magazine. He is currently also a co-author with some other folks from Accenture, including Peter Cheese and Elizabeth Craig, and the title is The Talent Powered Organization. We know how much talent management and strength management are so important in today’s organizational dynamics. It’s one of the first systematic efforts to chart a strategy for talent management of a global enterprise.
His first major book, What Machines Can’t Do: Politics and Technology in the Industrial Enterprise, won the 1994 C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. He is an Eagle Scout whose upbringing in Central California left him with a life-long passion for fast cars and fresh vegetables. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife. Bob, welcome to the show!
Bob Thomas: Thank you very much. After saying all of those nice things about me. I’m nervous!
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well we know they are true, that’s why we are allowed to same them in public.
Dr. Relly Nadler: We know that some of your work is looking at influences in people’s lives, and I think some of your books, as we talk about this, tie in to people’s influences in their lives and how that leads to leadership. What have been some of your key influences in your life that may have led you to some of the successes you have had today?
Bob Thomas: Well, it’s an interesting question because as I look back over my career, which has been in both research and in consulting; I have had a lot of influences from a number of different quarters.
I would have to say that among the most important were two gentleman that I got to know and to admire in my early 20’s. One of the was Cesar Chavez who at that time was the head of the United Farm Workers Union and someone who worked very closely for him was Ernesto Loreto who headed up a tenants union for low income farm workers based in Tulare County, California. They were extraordinarily influential on me.
Dr. Relly Nadler: In what way were the influential, and what were some of the things that you learned from them or you are using today?
Bob Thomas: Well I think probably most important was the extraordinary amount of confidence that they placed in the people who worked and for them. It was never a question that people needed to have intelligence and they needed to have desire, but what was the most powerful motivating force was the confidence that they gave us to go out and do great things.
Dr. Relly Nadler: So that empowerment and really appreciating who the talent is and making sure you are using that talent.
Bob Thomas: Precisely.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You know one of the things that I wanted you to talk a little bit about, Bob, and I don’t mean to so drastically change the conversation, but having been influenced so impactfully by these gentlemen, how is it that you came from that experience to lead this particular Institute for High Performance Business at Accenture?
Bob Thomas: Well, you know, it was quite interesting. I always had a great love of ideas and the way in which ideas can change the world; the way they can energize and invigorate people and even stagnant organizations. My original thought about how it is I was going to work with ideas and work in the world of ideas was as an academic, so I got a PhD in sociology from Northwestern and went on to teach, first in the sociology department and then in business school. Ultimately, at MIT in the Sloane School of Management.
Even though I loved it enormously, I found myself continuously chasing with the fact that it was ideas by themselves not ideas and action. So I kind of made it a choice after having been very successful as an academic, to take a leave and go into the world of business and management, and particularly into management consulting with the idea that if my thoughts, my insights were any good, they ought to work out in practice. If they didn’t work out in practice, well, that’s more learning for me.
So I left MIT and went to work for Accenture. In many ways it’s been the move back and forth between the world of ideas and the world of action that has provided me with not only great opportunities to learn, but probably more importantly, great opportunities to lead in a very fast-paced environment with lots and lots of smart people who are, if you will, creative artists in and of themselves.
Helping a group of creative people do something together has been a huge challenge for me. It’s something I think I’ve had a modicum of success, but I’m continuing to learn.
Dr. Relly Nalder: With that Bob, I think some of things that I’m attracted to in your work, sounds like putting together some of the life experiences; you coming from academics into the business organizational world. Let me ask you about these life experiences. Why do you think they are such good building blocks? I know sometimes people may come from the academic world or they come from the techno-expertise, like we talked about before, but how do you integrate or how do you see these life experiences as being critical for someone in leadership positions.
Bob Thomas: Well, it’s a really good point, because in fact, most of what I did while I was in academic was making sure we had statistical validity, representative samples. We had lots and lots of data to backup any kind of assertion or conclusion we made. One of the things that I knew from working with real leaders and real aspiring leaders in organizations is that while they want to have the data to back up their decisions, they have also got to act on the basis of what they feel is right.
Quite often, when you press them, people would say, well, let me tell you about a story from my experience. In many ways, what I came to discover both by way of the consulting work I was doing and with the book I did with Warren Bennis, was that it turns out that experience is an absolutely critical shaper of individuals as leaders.
In fact, when I asked people to tell me about a time in which they learned something important about being a leader, about leadership, not something that perhaps had been forced on them, but something that they have learned through life practice.
Almost invariably, they would tell stories of moments in time or of relationships that had a profound impact on them. More often than not, they were times of adversity, sometimes of great success. But we came to call these crucible experiences. What I meant by crucible experiences is that often it’s a test of who you are. Do you know yourself very well? Do you know what it is that you want to accomplish in your life? Do you what it is that you think people are capable of?
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