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Passing the Baton to the Next Generation of Leaders

Robert Thomas discusses the challenges and rewards of teaching leadership to working professionals
Robert Thomas headshot

Back in the early 1980s, Robert Thomas saw higher education as his path to enhance his leadership competencies in the family business. Now, as professor of the practice in the Scheller College of Business in Georgia Tech’s Institute of Leadership and Entrepreneurship, he passes these skills on to the next generation of industry leaders.

“I spent 12 years out of college with my family business, which was a meat packing company in Griffin, Georgia,” Thomas said. “I thought my path was always going to be to take over for my father as president. I choose to get an MBA during the early 80's and then decided that I wanted to try investment banking. I did that for a few years, mainly working with savings and loans and doing some merger and acquisition work. But I just found that was not meaningful for me.”

From there, Thomas fell into the world of academia “by happenstance.”

During the late 80s and early 90s, Thomas began work with a handful of universities and foundations in East and Central Europe. Soon, he was heading the international education program for University System of Georgia and working on a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Georgia.

Upon earning his doctorate, Thomas returned to his family business – but only stayed there a year. A new path had already been forged. He was asked to set up international education and servant leadership programs at La Grange College – as well as a leadership program at the University of North Georgia.

“I did that for about eight years,” he said. “And then in 2006 I was asked by the dean of the College of Business to come to Georgia Tech. I've been here since.”

Thomas’s work centers mostly on servant leadership and social entrepreneurship. He works with engineers who want to boost their already strong technical background with superior leadership skills. For Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE), he teaches two leadership courses in the Professional Master’s in Manufacturing Leadership (PMML).

“I found the PMML concept really interesting because of my MBA,” Thomas said. “What I found with an MBA is that many applicants are trying to either get a promotion within their work or change to another industry or company. So with PMML, it’s really set up for those that want to stay with their company and just enhance their skills. I really like that.”

Thomas also teaches undergraduates in a traditional campus setting, but admits that the PMML program can be more challenging given its focus on adult learners.

“I know they're going to have to implement what they learn in this program in the workplace, so it forces me to think about the application of theory and models within a context of the current environment in which they work,” Thomas said. “And, you know, I think spending 13 years in manufacturing helps me understand how difficult and challenging that can be.”

Thomas also stressed that one of the rewarding parts of the program is the opportunity to gauge its effectiveness in a variety of industries.

“It's rewarding because I've kept up with some of the students,” Thomas said. “I've gotten feedback from a lot of students in the program, on how they've been able to select different models and approaches that worked for them. So you can get feedback fairly quickly on what works and what doesn't work.”

In addition to details on the program’s applications in the field, his work with adult learners also grants him insight into the details of various industries – such as paper manufacturing.

“I just had never been exposed the complexities of manufacturing paper,” Thomas added. “I’ve been really impressed with the chemistry and how the paper industry has responded to environmental concerns and what they are doing to change their process. Not because they're forced to, but because they're able to see the impact of climate change on their supply source, which is the forest. I've been really amazed and impressed with that.”

The PMML program uses a hybrid model of both traditional on-campus and online learning. It means that Thomas only sees the participants six times during the two-year program, but these brief face-to-face meetings set the tone for digital correspondence.

“It's a nice balance, particularly for those that are working full time,” Thomas said.

Online teaching and media tools continue to improve. Thomas stressed that the program isn’t just about his connections with the learners but also their connections with each other – often in different industries but similar settings.

“They meet every week with their leadership development group,” Thomas said. “They also have a discussion forum, and I see the conversations back and forth with each other. They get to talk about how to implement these ideas in the workplace. And they're talking to people that are in similar situations, so I think that the potential for learning there is tremendous. When I got my MBA, we didn't call them leadership development groups. We called them study circles, but that was the greatest part of my learning experience.”

The two-year PMML program prepares learners for the inevitable ups and downs of change and conflict in global industry – and it does this through a mix of essential concepts, operational, and personnel management skills.

“From a learner’s perspective, I think it does give you valuable tools that can be implemented into your workplace,” Thomas said. “And as a faculty member, it has been a rewarding experience to work with the PMML staff. They're supportive. They've taught me new ways of teaching. They really put an emphasis on making sure the information flows in a way that a learner can absorb it and keep up with it. It’s been a great experience.”

Written by Robert Lamb