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May 2011
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R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr.

R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., often referred to as the “father of diversity,” is the CEO of R. Thomas Consulting & Training and the founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity Inc., a research and education enterprise.

For more than 20 years, he has counseled and consulted with CEOs and other senior executives from Fortune 500 companies, corporations, and nonprofit and government entities on defining diversity as a business issue and in developing and implementing diversity strategies.

Thomas’s books include World Class Diversity Management; Building on the Promise of Diversity; Redefining Diversity; and Beyond Race and Gender. His groundbreaking 1990 Harvard Business Review article, “From Affirmative Action to Affirming Diversity,” alerted corporate America of the need to move beyond EEO compliance in addressing the challenge of empowering a diverse workforce.

Thomas holds a doctorate in business administration in organizational behavior from Harvard University, a master’s in business administration and finance from the University of Chicago, and a bachelor’s in mathematics from Morehouse College, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. A former assistant professor at Harvard Business School, Thomas served as the dean of the graduate school of business administration at Atlanta University

The Wall Street Journal has recognized Thomas as one of the top 10 consultants in the country. In 1994, ASTD awarded him its highest honor—The Distinguished Contribution to Human Resource Development Award.

Q| You are often referred to as the "father of diversity"? How did you get involved in diversity and diversity management issues?

Any contribution I've made to the field has been by the grace of God.

My thinking of diversity and diversity management really relates back to my study of complex organizations as a doctoral student, studying organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. I'm just as concerned as anyone about race, gender, social justice, and human rights. But my thinking about diversity management is that this is an approach, a way of thinking - a way of generating solutions, which can be used in conjunction with social justice, human rights issues and also to non - social justice issues, such as those related to functions, acquisitions and mergers, or families and communities.

After graduating from Harvard and working there for five years, I received an appointment in the dean's office of the MBA program at Atlanta University, a historically black institution. This was the late 70s or early 80s, and our students were concerned that we were not providing them with the "political skills" to navigate predominately white corporations.

We started a course modeled after one that had been offered at Harvard, titled "Power and Politics and Organizations." I was eventually approached by a corporation while still at Atlanta University to offer a three-week course for African Americans who had managerial potential. In that program, we had a day or two on what we referred to as "multicultural issues," and the course went well. Then some whites in the corporation asked, "If the course is for high potential individuals, and we're high potential, why can't we attend as well?"

We then opened it up to everybody and started fleshing it out. This course eventually became the cornerstone of the American Institute for Managing Diversity (AIMD), which I founded at Morehouse College in 1984. After about four or five years with AIMD, I wrote the Harvard Business Review article, "From Affirmative Action to Affirming Diversity." And then about a year later, the book, Beyond Race and Gender.

Q| How have issues/attitudes related to diversity and diversity management changed since you started working in this area?

I think many still see diversity and affirmative action as synonymous, and believe that diversity and diversity management are just the acceptable language for talking about what used to be referred to as affirmative action and its related concepts.

I should say we've made great progress with the issue of representation and relationships - ensuring that we have workforces with numerical profiles reflecting society's representation with respect to race, gender, and ethnicity, and ensuring that these individuals experienced good relationships among themselves and with the organization. But this could have been accomplished under the tent of affirmative action, which is concerned with achieving appropriate representation and productive relationships.

On the other hand, diversity and diversity management are about managing and engaging people who are different and similar, all for the benefit of the organization and its goals. We are now just beginning to get around to understanding that diversity and affirmative action are different.

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Diversity is any mixture-characterized by differences, similarities, related tensions, and complexities. Diversity management involves making quality decisions and solving problems in the midst of differences, similarities, related tensions, and complexities. It is about ensuring that the diverse mixture works in support of your organization's mission, vision, and strategy.

Q| Do you have any memorable anecdotes from your work in diversity management consulting that you'd like to share?

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One involves a gentleman who really understood what I meant when I said that diversity could refer to the differences, similarities, and complexities that can characterize any mixture.

At a book signing, he came up to me and asked, "Do you ever talk about diversity in the context of family?" I said, "I do." He said, "Well I have three sons who married three very different women. They are now leading three very different lives. I think they have accepted that diversity well, but they are not managing it well." The father wanted them to have the same close relationships while married that they had when they were single. He said, "I'm going to give them this book, because I think it can help them."

About 15 minutes later, he showed up in line again. "Ever talk about this in the context of religion? Well, I've got this church" and he started to tell me about diversity issues he saw in his church.

What he was doing was literally looking around his life and identifying mixtures that needed attention. For me, this is a very basic diagnostic skill that's required in understanding diversity and utilizing diversity management.

Q| In your work, what have you found to be some of the common misconceptions about diversity and diversity management?

A major misconception is that they are intended to replace affirmative action. Still another misperception is around diversity management as a capability. When you speak of capability, you are talking about concepts; principles; decision-making framework; and requirements for practice, mastery, and continuous learning. This is something you really have to work at to develop. Most people don't think about diversity management in that way. They approach diversity management with a "give me the five quick to-do's to allow me to move on." That's a major, major misperception.

Still another misperception is around diversity management as a capability. When you speak of capability, you are talking about concepts, principles, decision making framework, and requirements for practice, mastery, and continuous learning. This is something you really have to work at to develop. Most people don't think about diversity management in that way. They approach diversity management with a "give me the five quick to do's to allow me to move on." That's a major, major misperception.

Today, you see individuals discovering different dimensions of workforce diversity - global diversity, thought diversity, age diversity, religious diversity - and seeking and offering solutions to specific dimensions of diversity.

One option to explore - which diversity management is about, as I understand it - is to teach a person "how to fish;" that is, teach a person how to develop their own diversity management solutions, rather than giving them a "fish" for each different situation. To do that, you have to offer universal concepts, principles, and a decision making framework. And that's what diversity management can provide.

Q| Are you working on any new books or special projects?

I hear our concepts being cited in support of what people are doing with respect to race, gender, and ethnicity - that's encouraging. But they are not always identified as part of larger umbrella called the Strategic Diversity Management Process. The book I'm working on will hopefully bring better theoretical understanding and greater practical application.

In my latest book, World Class Diversity Management: A Strategic Approach, I defined diversity management as the capability to address any diversity issue in any setting in any geographic location. It is also defined as a strategic approach, where the focus of your attention with respect to diversity is a function of your organization's mission, vision, and strategy. The book will be a culminating attempt to bring together all of what I have said in my previous writings.

Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?

I dabble in photography and also golf. I spend a lot of time reading. Sometimes, I'm reading something that has the potential to increase my understanding of diversity; sometimes I read for entertainment. A good relaxing time is just letting my mind wander and bump into thoughts about diversity; that can happen on a driving range or while taking pictures. That's what relaxation is for me. I don't do as much as I would like to do or need to do.

About the Author

Phaedra Brotherton is a trained career development facilitator and certified professional resume writer. She is former manager of ATD’s Career Development Community of Practice, and was previously senior writer/editor for ATD.

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