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David A. Thomas: Creating Breakthrough Value

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

Photo: Dr. David A. Thomas


Growing up in Kansas City during the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. David A. Thomas was inspired to change the world. “I saw lawyers and preachers as the leaders of change, but I thought I was too much of a sinner to go the preacher route,” Thomas laughs. “So I decided to become a lawyer.” With this goal in mind, Thomas attended Yale University, but soon changed the focus of his studies from law to organizational behavior. At age 22, he was hired by a community-based program in New York that trained kids to be peer counselors for at-risk youth.

Applying his understanding of organization, leadership and change, Thomas transformed the once-floundering outreach into a thriving organization that helped change lives. The successful application of organizational behavioral theory energized Thomas and fed his desire to use his knowledge to help others. “I realized that what I really loved was moving from practice to theory to educating people,” he says. “I saw what we did different and conveyed that to other people so they could try to make a difference in their work.” For more than thirty years, Thomas has been going out into the world, studying a phenomenon, breaking it down so people can understand it and then teaching others the principles so they can transform their lives or their organizations.

Blazing Trails

Throughout his prestigious career, Thomas’ work has influenced hundreds of thousands of lives and helped shape countless businesses and organizations. Thomas was a professor at the Wharton School of Finance before joining the faculty at Harvard in 1990, eventually serving as faculty chair for Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Program.

Thomas authored two books – Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America and Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County – and more than 60 case studies and articles for leading academic journals and practitioner publications. Thomas and his work have received many awards, including the Executive50 Beacon Award, which is given annually to a visionary leader who exhibits continued and dedicated commitment to leadership development in a truly inclusive fashion.

“One of the things that helped is that there were Leading executives who were the trail blazers, who were courageous in terms of not forgetting to pull people with them and conscious of the need to create opportunities.”

A Conscious Choice

Now Dean and William R. Berkley Chair of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Thomas continues to apply the very business principles he defined and honed over the years. “I’m trying to build a diverse student body and a diverse staff and turn it into one of the most outstanding business schools in the world,” he says. Behind all the accolades and accomplishments remains the idealist who determined long ago to change the world. And change, it has. “There has been tremendous progress made for opening up the possibilities for executives of color in general, but there is a significant amount of work that remains to be done,” Thomas says.

“One of the things that helped is that there were leading executives who were the trailblazers, who were courageous in terms of not forgetting to pull people with them and conscious of the need to create opportunities. It’s important to this generation—to the folks who are represented in organizations such as the Executive50—that they evaluate their commitments to make a difference to others as well as themselves. That consciousness will be key in terms of whether or not we continue to make progress.”


Published in 1999, Breaking Through earned the George R. Terry Award from the Academy of Management for the most outstanding contribution to the advance - ment of management knowledge. He and co-author John J. Gabarro examined six years of data exploring the pro - motion and career experiences of 54 minority and white executives and managers from three companies. Their analysis addressed topics that were well known but rarely closely scrutinized.

They posited that “American companies may tout their equal opportunity initiatives, but with 95 percent of all executive-level positions in the United States held by white males, most of these programs clearly fall far short of their goals when it comes to diversifying their management.” However, according to their analysis, “even in the face of such overwhelming odds, some minority executives do break through to the highest leadership roles.” The onus, they suggest, lies with the both company and the individual.

While the companies featured in the book all had different approaches to their diversity pro - grams, each had some level of success. The fundamental ingredients for instituting effective programs include making a definitive commitment, choosing a program that fits the company culture and soliciting input from all of your organization’s stakeholders, including representa - tives from diverse groups. Those professionals who exhibited the most success in breaking through to the upper ranks all demonstrated a few key common characteristics, including:

  • Focus on critical competencies, learning and broadening their experience base (personal value)

  • Establishing a reputation for integrity and contrib - uting significant impact to business (organizational value)

  • Time and effort invested in establishing develop - mental relationships, including a distinct portfolio of mentors and sponsors (interpersonal value)

These core attributes, as identified in Breaking Through, are some of the primary areas of focus of Executive50 and its wide curricula of executive development programs. “No other leader in the field of executive leadership development better exemplifies the mission of vision of Executive50,” according to President and C.E.O., Eric W. Walton, Ph.D. “Dr. Thomas’ innovative work directly informs our organization’s focus on helping professionals enhance their corporate athleticism through peer-mentoring, executive level programming and networking opportunities.”

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