Growing up during the Civil Rights era, David A. Thomas absorbed lessons in leadership. A “current affairs junkie” even at an early age, he saw passionate speeches and people mobilizing for change on TV and in the newspaper. Perhaps more important, he witnessed the social progress spurred by his own father’s community involvement in Kansas City, Mo.

Inspired by what he saw, Thomas thought he would become a lawyer. But through years of education, he discovered the power of business, and specifically the field of organizational behavior, as a tool for creating social change.

The legal field’s loss is Georgetown University McDonough School of Business’ gain. On Aug. 1, Thomas started his service as Georgetown McDonough’s dean. He retires from Harvard Business School on Oct. 1 and will also serve as Georgetown’s William R. Berkley Chair.

Thomas’ research has shifted the national conversation about diversity in the workplace. For example, his 2004 Harvard Business Review article “Diversity as Strategy” took a fresh look at a familiar success story: IBM’s financial turnaround of the mid-1990s. Thomas examined IBM’s internal task forces designed to examine and reshape the company’s culture. These groups from different demographics did more than just address employee diversity and sensitivity; they boosted the bottom line. The IBM Market Development unit, for example, arose directly from employees who saw ways to reach the growing market of women- and minority-owned businesses. The result: hundreds of millions of dollars of previously untapped revenue. Through the IBM case study and similar research, Thomas has proved to practitioners how diverse perspectives can lead a company to increased innovation and profitability.

Thomas also has examined how leaders are developed. The award-winning book Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America (Harvard Business Press, 1999) traces the path to advancement for minority executives, and several of his comparative research pieces have provided managers with practical information on how to groom promising employees for success. Thomas has written more than 60 case studies and articles for leading journals and practitioner publications. The book Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County (Harvard Education Press, 2009) covers another of his passions: improving public education. The book outlines a school district’s approach to closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers. Having gone to public schools himself before earning an Ivy League education, Thomas knows the path to success starts early.

Thomas, a husband and a father of three, also practices what he researches, whether he is mentoring the degree candidates who build on the field of work he helped establish or volunteering on boards for local hospitals and schools. Thomas sat down with Georgetown Business to discuss his roots, his work, and the prestigious future he foresees for Georgetown McDonough.

 What drew you to the business world?

A number of things influenced me. The first is that my father was involved in the meatpacking unions in Kansas City, and he was one of the prime organizers of a neighborhood association. I saw him organizing people to make things happen.

My draw to the business world was that it was another place where people exercised leadership. I was drawn to this idea of
people mobilizing to accomplish something — and, in particular, the leaders who make that happen.

As I went through college, I discovered this field of study called organizational behavior. That connected to my interest in social change. I had been very involved in student government at Yale, and this study of organizations was proving helpful to me in my work as a student organizer and leader. Growing up in the Civil Rights era and seeing the things my father accomplished made me want to be part of making change. And the more I got involved in organizational behavior, the more I saw it as providing the tools to help organizations and individuals make change.

 Did those tools show up in your early work?

Yes, they did. I graduated college and at age 22 became director of a counseling and training program that worked with youth in schools in New York state. The organization was on the verge of being defunded when I took it over, and we turned it around in a year, using the concepts I had learned as an undergraduate — concepts like establishing clear boundaries between jobs, making sure people are communicating about their needs, and delegating decision rights and the accountability that comes with them.

The other connection I made early on — again influenced by my father’s activities — was the idea that people spend most of their waking hours between the ages of 21 and 65 at work. If we can make places of work better places for people to be, then they will also be better citizens back in their community. I truly believe that.

 Was that part of what drew you to Georgetown McDonough? The Jesuit values seem to fit with your own.

That was part of the appeal. As I talked to people about Georgetown, it became very clear to me that this is a place that values high-quality teaching, a place that has a committed faculty, and a place where people care deeply about the school.

Georgetown McDonough also is distinguished in terms of its international and global orientation. That combination — connected with the values of the Jesuit tradition around service and around social justice — made me think Georgetown had a unique combination of assets that resonated with my values.

 What about the location in D.C.? Do you see that as a strength?

Yes. There are the internal strengths that I named above, and then there is a set of endowments that are there to be leveraged. D.C. is one of them. In today’s environment, Washington, D.C., is as important to the business community and the economic issues and challenges confronting the world as is Wall Street or High Street.

 Do you think of Georgetown McDonough as a school on the rise?

I do, and one of the main things that reflects that is the tremendous difference the Hariri Building has made for the school in the last two years. It also appears in our growth in executive education, our graduate programs, and our recognition of the need to re-examine our curriculum in the undergraduate program. All of those show a school on the move.

 What are your goals as you begin your leadership here?

What I really have in mind is a set of themes. One is global. I see global as being about the perspective we bring, the exposure we have, and the quality of encounters we give our students and our faculty as they go global. We want our students to ask questions and have experiences that shape how they think about the world.

That leads to perhaps the most important theme: transformational educational experience, which is what we want to provide our students. We want them to come out different than they were when they came in, and not just in terms of knowing more concepts and theories.

 So it goes beyond building a business skill set?

Yes, if we do it properly. Having a business skill set is part of it, but we want how students think about themselves and their role in the world to change as a result of the education we provide, because it is transformative.

I also have a more general theme around excellence, whether that is excellence in research, excellence in teaching, or excellence in service regarding our staff work. The best organizations I have studied or been involved with make service excellence part of their culture.

 What about research? Is it important for you that Georgetown McDonough research has value for practitioners, like your own research?

Yes, absolutely, but it goes beyond that. I talk about research needing to have three qualities: rigor, relevance, and impact. If we fail on any of those dimensions, then it is insufficient.

Finally, I want us to foster a culture of respect, collaboration, innovation, and inclusion. I’m starting with those themes, and we will build our strategies around them.

 Since you mentioned inclusion, tell us about your research on diversity in the workplace. What led you to that topic?

The workplace is the most diverse place we encounter. It’s not our neighborhoods. It’s not our churches. It’s not our grocery stores. It’s not our schools. It’s the workplace. So if we can transform people’s experience in a diverse work environment — and if we can turn that diversity into a positive resource for renewal and innovation — that’s what we can export back into our communities.

 Much of your research was about shifting the conversation around diversity. Why did that change need to take place?

The conversation needed to shift because it seemed that some managers thought diversity stopped with the numbers. They made cosmetic changes instead of asking, “How do we create the conditions so the diversity in our workforce becomes a positive resource for innovation and renewal, both for individuals and the organization?” My colleagues and I came to see diversity as being ultimately about having diverse perspectives to look at problems and solve them in new ways, and to think about our markets in new ways. If we did that, the numbers would be necessary, but not sufficient.

 You proved this concept through case studies, especially the dramatic turnaround at IBM. How did that help make your case?

With the IBM case, I was looking at an organization that up until 1995 essentially focused on not recognizing differences. But IBM’s leadership decided it wanted to create a better place for both their workforce and their customers. They sought input from diverse task forces and opened up new markets as a result, and they had tremendous success, both culturally and financially.

The IBM case demonstrates what it looks like when diversity is placed at the heart of an organization’s people strategy. Now diversity is as much a part of the managerial lexicon as are words like quality and strategy.

 So your research has made a difference in how managers look at diversity?

Well, it’s not the research that led people to change their views; it just got the conversation started. I think what my work has done is to encourage managers and executives to allow their organizations to experiment, and when they see the results for themselves, their attitudes change.

 What other research has been most interesting to you?

I think career development and mentoring are both very important. I became interested in what differentiated people who were equally competent, but then one group identified strongly with the organization while the other viewed it as “just a job.”

What I started to discover was that what most predicted success was the quality of the relationships people had in an organization, and particularly what I call developmental relationships: mentors, sponsors, and associates who promote professional development.

 Do you see parallels in the academic world?

Yes. The quality of the mentoring that young faculty get is a major predictor of how well their careers will go. The irony of that is that we often treat academia as if it is purely an individual sport. But in reality, social relationships matter significantly in terms of how people’s careers evolve and in their ultimate success.

 How can alumni play a role in your vision for Georgetown McDonough?

I see a number of roles for alumni. One is serving as a resource to help us deliver that transformative educational experience, whether through networking with students, producing internships or sponsoring research projects in their organizations, or creating field experiences that can be coupled with classes. Another is helping us develop the community of philanthropic support that we need for Georgetown McDonough to become pre-eminent.

 Alumni who want to know more about you can follow you online, since you are an active Twitterer — or Tweeter, if you prefer. What draws you to social media?

I am drawn to social media because, used appropriately, it creates communities of interests that are driven by the users, rather than the producers of the technology. I find social media empowering. I first got involved with it more than four years ago because I wanted to stay more connected to the lives of my teenagers. Both of my older children were fine with making me a friend on Facebook, and I found it a great way to learn about their lives and to share what is happening in mine.

Today, I tweet and my kids do not. So the joke in the family is that I am the techie.

 Do you see social media playing a role in how people communicate about business, research, social change, and other topics?

Social media has great potential for business and research. Already, companies and scientific laboratories are experimenting with open-source problem-solving, where they post a problem and scientists within and outside the organization interested in it contribute to the solution. This is all enabled by social media technology. I think we have only scratched the surface of social media’s potential. To fully realize it will require a mind shift in the people who lead institutions. I have sat in board meetings where our discussions of social media have been defensive rather than focused on how to leverage it for greater connectivity and to unleash our employees’ creativity.

Education:

•    Doctor of Philosophy, Yale University, 1986

•    Master of Philosophy, Yale University, 1984

•    Master of Arts, Organizational Psychology, Columbia University, 1981

•    Bachelor of Arts, Yale University, 1978

 

Previous academic appointments:

•    H. Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

•    Chair, Organizational Behavior Unit, Harvard Business School

•    Senior associate dean and director of faculty recruitment, Harvard Business School

•    Assistant professor of management, Wharton School of Finance, University of Pennsylvania

 

Selected awards:

•    Administrative Science Quarterly Scholarly Contribution Award

•    Executive Development Roundtable’s Marion Gislason Award for Contributions to the Theory and Practice of Executive Development

•    George R. Terry Award from the Academy of Management

 

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