Previously published on Forbes
Ed Thomas has the heart of a servant. He cares deeply about contributing and giving back—a rare trait for a busy, 60-hour-a-week leader with a big job. He is the managing partner for the Seattle office at Deloitte and the newly appointed dean of Deloitte’s senior leadership programs at Deloitte University located outside of Dallas, Texas.
I had heard about Ed’s care for community and his wide contributions throughout the Seattle area, and I wanted to learn more. My conversation with him also coincided with a big day for Deloitte: Impact Day. Impact Day underscores their commitment to creating real change. Deloitte has set aside one day a year to recognize the company’s year-round commitment to community-powered social impact. Last Friday, Ed was out with his team beautifying an outdoor courtyard area at the Colwell Apartments, one of Plymouth Housing's supportive apartment buildings. Ed’s heart is in all of this. He wants to make a difference.
I had the opportunity to interview Ed recently, and here’s what he revealed about leadership and the power of giving back:
Dede Henley: Every leader has a defining moment, what Warren Bennis called a “crucible". The event forever changes us, makes us better or worse, but we are never the same. What was your leadership crucible and how has it impacted you?
Ed Thomas: My “crucible” happened on September 11, 2001. I was in New York at our Deloitte midtown office that terrible morning. Our immediate task after the twin towers went down was finding, locating and ensuring the safety of 4,200 Deloitte team members. We were immediately unified, on purpose and entirely cohesive as a team. I think I’ve been chasing the high of that experience ever since. I know it’s not replicable, but the question I was left with is, how can we have that kind of teaming happen in less dire circumstances? 9-11 helped me to know that I could lead a great team and trust my ability to pull together a plan in less than perfect circumstances.
DH: Tell me more about how you care for your own people today.
ET: At Deloitte, we don’t have many assets beyond computers and some real estate. What we have are great people. We have an ethic of cultivating our people into something even greater. We’re always trying to find opportunities for people to use their strengths. And strengths, as we define them, are not necessarily things you’re best at. They are the things that give you energy.
This development takes shape in formal programs we offer through “Deloitte University” in Texas, in our company-wide commitment to greater diversity and inclusion, and in more organic efforts to empower employees to find and follow their passions. I care about making sure that people have opportunity and are treated fairly. I have consistently pulled for people on the short end of the stick vis-a-vis power.
This approach to leadership is working. Deloitte has been one of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for the past 18 years and was named to People’s inaugural “50 Companies That Care”.
DH: How did you come to be a champion for the underdog?
ET: Let’s just start with the fact that I’m from Detroit. If you root for teams in Detroit, you know that the promise of next year is always better than the actual results. So there’s an element of that inside of me. When I was a child, Joe Namath played for the Colts. And the Jets played the heavily-favored Colts in the first Super Bowl I watched on TV. Everybody thought the Jets were going to lose. I remember watching this with my Papaw. We both cheered for them. We wanted them to win no matter what others thought of them.
Also, my lineage is from scrappy self-starters who didn’t have power and privilege. My father was the first person in his family to go to college. My grandfather was a coal miner and my great-grandmother, Annie Pursifull, one of the first women to run for office in the state of Kentucky. These facts have a way of grounding me—stories of humility that go back generations.
DH: Tell me about your give-back to women in the community.
ET: Via #onBoardingWomen, I’m involved in helping women get onto corporate boards. Women make up half of the workforce in America, yet it is our understanding that they hold just 22% of the board seats among the Fortune 1000 companies. WE need to fix that. OnBoardingWomen is a development program that helps women improve their skill and readiness to serve on a board of directors in the community. My grandmother would have been proud of what we’re doing here.
DH: What is your “why”?
ET: I care more about the “we” than “me.” What gives us joy? What is our strength? I am always asking, “How can we find the higher level purpose for the work we are doing?” Five years ago, I knew I needed to move from a life of importance to a life of significance. I am doubling down and asking myself: Am I living a life of significance? I’m making sure I do this for the remainder of my tenure at Deloitte. I want to reinvent myself for the next 25 years or so. I increasingly find myself thinking about this.
Giving back is generative. You come back to work energized, inspired and filled with gratitude. And your team is often proud of these contributions to the community. Caring for people within your organization and outside of it in the larger community is life-giving. Follow Ed’s lead. He’s a good one.