Remembering a Trailblazer: Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr.

R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., a longtime Diversity Executive columnist, supporter and friend, was arguably the founding father of strategic diversity and inclusion management and shaped it as a strategic business driver beyond affirmative action and compliance. Thomas died May 17 after collapsing at his home in Decatur, Ga. He was 68.

It was perhaps fitting that one of Thomas’ final columns for the magazine, published in the May/June issue, was titled “The House That Diversity Built,” because most diversity practitioners, as well as his family and friends, view his work as the underpinning for what we know today as diversity and inclusion management.

“Roosevelt put the corporate world on notice that diversity wasn’t just about good intentions and race and gender,” said his wife, Ruby.

Ruby first met Thomas in 1969 on the campus of Morehouse College, where the two worked. The couple was married for 42 years and had two sons, Shane and Jarred, and a daughter, April.

“Dr. Thomas’ passion and keen intellectual clarity on the requirements for this field are unparalleled,” said Edward E. Hubbard, president and CEO of Hubbard & Hubbard Inc., a diversity metrics and measurement consultancy, and Thomas’ longtime friend and colleague. “His seminal work on diversity management laid the fundamental foundation of the diversity field.”

Marshall Goldsmith, a widely regarded figure in the world of business leadership and author and co-editor of 32 books on the subject, said Thomas’ work shifted the conversation not just related to diversity in business, but leadership in general.

“Dr. Thomas made several large contributions. One is looking at diversity not in terms of counting people but in terms of appreciation of differences,” said Goldsmith, who said he and Thomas were friends for 15 years. “One of Dr. Thomas’ big focuses was getting people to appreciate differences and understand, for example, the difference between preferences and requirements.”

Ahead of His Time
While his career in business began many years prior, Thomas’ profile as a pioneer in diversity management took a major leap in 1990 when he wrote an in-depth article for the March/April issue of Harvard Business Review titled “From Affirmative Action to Affirming Diversity.”

The article’s first sentence is especially striking, considering at the time, affirmative action was only 25 years old and diversity management as a formal business practice did not yet exist.

“Sooner or later,” Thomas wrote, “affirmative action will die a natural death. Its achievements have been stupendous, but if we look at the premises that underlie it, we find assumptions and priorities that look increasingly shopworn.”

The idea was forward-thinking. At a time when most organizations had no chief diversity officer — and those that did, it could be argued, had added the role in an effort to appear more compliant with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission directives — Thomas was already asserting that those who claimed the responsibility of an organizational diversity practitioner needed to move beyond the prototypical racial stereotypes to create inclusive cultures.

Minorities were already well on their way to comprising a greater percentage of the U.S. workforce, Thomas wrote, and for diversity and inclusion to sustain itself as a valuable management practice, organizations needed to move the needle from counting heads to creating culture.

“Affirmative action is an artificial, transitional intervention intended to give managers a chance to correct an imbalance, an injustice, a mistake,” he wrote in the article. “Once the numbers mistake has been corrected, I don’t think affirmative action alone can cope with the remaining long-term task of creating a work setting geared to the upward mobility of all kinds of people, including white males. It is difficult for affirmative action to influence upward mobility even in the short run, primarily because it is perceived to conflict with the meritocracy we favor. For this reason, affirmative action is a red flag to every individual who feels unfairly passed over and a stigma for those who appear to be its beneficiaries.”

He continued: “If you are managing diverse employees, you should ask yourself this question: Am I fully tapping the potential capacities of everyone in my department? If the answer is no, you should ask yourself this follow-up: Is this failure hampering my ability to meet performance standards? The answer to this question will undoubtedly be yes.”

Fulfilling a Legacy
Thomas earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1966 from Morehouse College in Atlanta. He received an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago before returning to Morehouse to teach.

After two years of teaching at Morehouse — the period in which he met Ruby — Thomas went on to Harvard Business School, where he earned a doctorate in organizational behavior. Thomas would stay at Harvard for five years to teach before exploring a career in management consulting.
The hectic travel schedule of a consultant left Thomas unhappy, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article written shortly after his death. So he returned to school, this time as an administrator. In the early 1980s, he worked as associate dean, executive dean and dean of the Atlanta University Graduate School of Business Administration.

In 1984, Thomas left Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University, to return to Morehouse. He launched his first diversity nonprofit, the Institute for Corporate Leadership & Management at Morehouse College Inc. At that time it was believed to be the country’s first research and management organization focused on the upward mobility of minorities.

The organization’s name was later changed to the American Institute for Managing Diversity, or AIMD, and still holds the mission “to advance diversity in leadership through research, education and public outreach.”

“To me, Dr. Thomas started a revolution of, ‘let’s take a step back, let’s define what we call diversity management,’ because diversity exists. You don’t have to make it happen. You walk into a room, there’s diversity everywhere you are,” said Pamela Arnold, president of AIMD from 2010 to 2012. “Dr. Thomas’ work takes it to the next level of recognizing that we need to make quality decisions in the midst of our differences and similarities.”

The launch of AIMD marked the beginning of a 28-year span in which Thomas would stand at the forefront of the industry, developing and implementing innovative concepts and strategies to maximize the potential of diversity management. He would write seven books on the subject, including his most recent, “World Class Diversity Management: A Strategic Approach.”

In his book “Building a House for Diversity,” Thomas wrote a fable about a giraffe and an elephant to examine assumptions about power, influence, affirmative action and acceptance.

Arnold spoke about the power of the book:

“His ability to tell that fable, where you have a giraffe and an elephant who are very good friends, they live in the same neighborhood, work in a similar space, they do similar work, working with woodwork. The giraffe invites the elephant over to his house one day because they want to work on an assignment together. The moral of the story is that the elephant finds it challenging to come into the giraffe’s house, because the giraffe’s house is built for a giraffe, not for the elephant. The elephant shows up, tries to go through the door, the giraffe has to expand it; the elephant then tries to go upstairs, he crushes the stairs.

“… The giraffe starts making suggestions about what the elephant needs to do to change. The elephant thinks that’s interesting and says, ‘I could take dance lessons to lose weight.’ The moral of the story again is how the giraffe and elephant can exist in a house that was built for a giraffe. He used that as a parable to compare and talk about diversity challenges and diversity tensions.”

Thomas consulted with numerous Fortune 500 companies, professional firms, government agencies, nonprofits and educational institutions. He also was frequently asked to speak at conferences and seminars across the country.

The culmination of these activities came in the form of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training, where Thomas, as CEO, sought to standardize what would be termed the strategic diversity management process. The framework defines diversity as “any collective mixture characterized by differences, similarities and related tensions and complexities,” and has four components: managing diverse talent, managing all strategic mixtures, managing relationships and managing representation.

Practitioners say the framework has acted as a benchmark for the strategic diversity work done in many organizations.

“His frameworks are the standardization models for everyone’s approach to this work because it’s universal,” said David Casey, vice president of workforce strategies and chief diversity officer for CVS Caremark. “It’s a model or framework that can be applied to any organization, whether it’s a nonprofit or for-profit. It’s a model that engages every part of the business. It’s a model that allows any level of employee or colleague in an organization to understand how they can contribute to the organizational objectives.”

Casey said this framework, as well as Thomas’ work overall, helped act as a guidepost early in his practitioner career.

Thomas’ book “Beyond Race and Gender” in particular had a profound influence on how Casey said he positions his diversity work. Published in 1992, the book is built around the idea that diversity work must extend beyond traditional conversations of race and gender. Casey said this is another example of Thomas’ forward-thinking vision, considering how much of the conversation is still stuck in those areas.

“It gives me a platform when talking about this work that engages every part of the business,” he said. “It’s not just a recruitment issue, it’s not just a marketplace issue, it’s not just a culture issue, it’s not just a talent issue. It’s about all of the above.

“… The thing that set Dr. Thomas apart, and what I hope people will continue to leverage as a part of his legacy, is a much broader framework to approaching this work and a framework that is inclusive. It’s kind of ironic that diversity is about being inclusive, but we restrict the conversation too many times to things that are solely focused on race and gender.

“So you have this broad topic that encompasses so much, but we get caught up in defining the context of the conversations so narrowly. I really hope that people will take this opportunity upon his passing to really have a deeper understanding of his framework and his universal methodology, and how that can help us broaden our conversation and make this work more sustainable.”