Robert Thomas
Dr. Robert Thomas is Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Darden Restaurant’s professor of diversity management.

How can we be advocates for inclusion, diversity, equity and access?

Dr. Robert Thomas, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Darden Restaurants Professor of Diversity Management, joins host Andy Lord to discuss the art of negotiations, the importance of listening, the impact of having difficult conversations, and more.


Andy Lord

Andy Lord

Robert Thomas: You do promise to edit out everything, right?

Andy Lord: Absolutely editing everything. Yep, it’s just gonna be a hum that’s playing over the radio waves by the time we’re done with it. We are Warrington is a new podcast that helps young business leaders discover what is possible by highlighting stories from the Warrington College of Business community about the University of Florida experience, business industry insights, innovative research and more. I’m your host, Andy Lord.

Today’s guest is Dr. Robert Thomas. Dr. Thomas is Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Darden Restaurant’s professor of diversity management in the Warrington College of Business. In his role as Assistant Dean for diversity and inclusion, he works to foster an atmosphere and environment of positive conversation and collaboration among all members of Warrington student body, faculty, staff and external stakeholders within and outside of the university. Additionally, he oversees college-wide efforts to support faculty, staff, students and alumni from historically underrepresented groups across Warrington’s three schools including the coordination of diversity and inclusion programming. Dr. Thomas also advises Warrington’s leadership team on matters of diversity and inclusion across all three schools.

He has been a professor at Warrington for 28 years and was named Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the fall of 2018. Originally from Evanston, Illinois, he received his AB in economics from Princeton University and both his PhD in economics and JD from Stanford university.

All right, so here we go, Dr. Thomas, welcome to the podcast.

Thomas: Thank you, glad to be here, I think.

Lord: That was fun asking you about your life, prior to getting started here today. So, we’re gonna just dive right on in, you’re here at the Warrington College of Business where clearly, you’ve been here for quite some time now, I believe over 28 years at this point. Not only as our new Assistant Dean for diversity and inclusion since 2018, but you’ve been a professor here for many years, very excited to talk to you today but we’re gonna get started by just talking about some of your classes and what you’re teaching here.

So, I think you teach at an interesting crossroads between business law and technology. You’re one of our favorite professors here, so, clearly you must have a favorite lesson to teach these students as they are in your classes. Is there anything that you can elaborate a little bit on, on what are some of your favorite lessons that are being taught?

Thomas: Okay, so let’s set some ground rules. I can talk forever. So, shut me up when you enough on any topic.

Lord: All right, next question.

Thomas: Okay, so, to the degree that I am popular or courses are popular is because of what I teach. I teach business law and I teach negotiation, which are two extremely nontraditional courses. And so, the lessons are going to be somewhat different. I like to think that I’m training students to teach in an analytical manner that doesn’t involve crunching numbers. So, for example, in business law, I use something called the IRAC method, which is called Issue Rule, Analyze and Conclude, which is something I learned during the bar review course. And it really forces students to think about a problem, not just regurgitate material. In negotiation, the key takeaways there are interests and communications.

So, one of my favorite lessons in negotiations, something I call, an exercise I call value of money. And what I do is I ask the students; would they accept $5 million from me and go spend two years on a desert island off the coast of Alaska with nothing but what they’re wearing now and the $5 million. And they realize very quickly that they’re not gonna last very long. And I use that to illustrate the importance of identifying what’s behind what people ask for, what is truly motivating them.

Lord: So, I guess you would just burn the money there for a while and try to stay alive, right?

Thomas: You would probably burn the money in that kind of cold. I hope you’re very good at hunting seals.

Lord: Geez, I don’t think I have any skill set in that regard and with this Florida blood now, I couldn’t even make it in a Chicago weather, let alone Alaska. So, do you have any tips for our listeners on their next negotiation?

Thomas: I would, I do have a few. Okay, this is where you’re gonna need to shut me up.

Lord: No, we’re gonna keep you going and wind you up and get you going.

Thomas: I teach in a business school obviously and obvious the students should take the course, but I don’t teach a business negotiations course because there really isn’t any such thing as business negotiations, there is just negotiation. And you are looking for the context in which to fit the skills, the lessons in. So, negotiations are applicable to, obviously the business negotiations, they’re applicable to relationship negotiations, they’re applicable to parent-children negotiation and good luck to negotiating with a three-year-old. You’re never gonna win those.

All right, so, even for those family negotiations, for those political negotiation, it is all about sales. You’re either selling a product, a service, an idea or yourself, you’re selling something. And so, you need to, the best way to sell things is to persuade someone that they’re getting benefit value from what you’re offering. And you do this by creating a vision of gain in your counterpart’s head.

So, the only way to really do that is by understanding first what your interests are, what is it that you wanna accomplish? What are your basic needs? Recall my talk about the value of money. Get behind all that. What is it that you are really looking for? And then think about how the other side can benefit from giving you what you’re asking for.

Lord: Intellectual property, is a research interest of yours. Is there anything in particular about intellectual property that you think our listeners should know about besides Instagram and what you think about Instagram?

Thomas: Okay, so, you’re probably gonna get to this later. I’m an avid photographer and I’m probably one of the few photographers who doesn’t have an Instagram account. And that’s primarily because if you read the Instagram terms of services, you give up all IP rights to anything you post there. And I always harken back to Professor Goldstein who taught my copyright class back in law school. And he would not let us record his lectures, he would not do any in any material because this is his IP. And IP is probably the most valuable property that you have, it’s definitely the most valuable intangible property that you have.

But if you look at all the big businesses, the ones that are topping the Fortune 500 company, you gotta go down to probably four or five before you get somebody or some company that’s made their money on something other than intellectual property. I mean, if you look at Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, even Tesla now, which they are purportedly a car company, but really, it’s the software. And because anybody can copy a Tesla, it’s a nice car, but there are a lot of nice cars out there and many that look a whole lot better but really, Tesla would not be Tesla without the IP. So, IP is just the basis of most value in our economy.

Lord: So, segueing beyond the classroom, you play an important role here now as the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion here at Warrington. Can you tell us a little bit about that role and what you do?

Thomas: This role is continuing to be developed, I’m continuing to define that role. And fortunately, Saby has given me a lot of reign to shape it as it’s needed. And I see myself as a catalyst to advance the interests of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. I’ve been working a lot with our Associate Dean for the undergraduate school, Alex Sevilla who has really been a dynamo in this area. We have really been a partnership and we have been really working on shaping what it is we need to accomplish.

And the whole concept of IDEA has been our mantra. It has been shaping and directing where we go. We started off by first listening to what are the issues that the various stakeholders in the college are concerned about in this area. And so, we listened to a broad range of groups. We listened to faculty students, staff, alumni, and we had a couple of sessions focus on LGBTQ+ issues to get a clear understanding of what it is.

I mean, it’s hard to take action if you don’t know what the issues are that are addressed in the community. And then from there, we worked on creating the plan. So, some of the big issues, obviously are representation, having an inclusive environment and making sure that the resources that we have available are equitable for all.

Lord: So, IDEA, it stands for inclusion, diversity, equity, and access as you mentioned. For our listeners out there that might not know what that, the definitions behind that, can you let us know or define each of those words and explain why they are important as a whole?

Thomas: Absolutely, so, the inclusion part is being welcome, having a sense of belonging. We don’t want to simply have people here from diverse backgrounds, we want them to be truly a part of everything that Warrington is about. So, inclusion, we know we used to talk about D and I and then we went D, E and I and we realized that I should be the first one because having people represented means that they’re here for a moment and then they’re gone and then we have to work all over again.

So, the inclusive part is the most important part, in short, it’s having a sense of belonging. When we get to diversity, that’s what most people focus on, which is the representation. We want to have representation from everyone, all the groups, the underrepresented communities, from handicap and veterans, we want everyone to be part of it. And one of my pet peeves is so often people use the shorthand of we need more diverse people represented or we need to recruit diverse people. And they’re using that as a shorthand for underrepresented communities. And if we had all people from underrepresented communities, we would not have diversity.

So, diversity is everyone. My wife is an amazing gardener, but if she had all white flowers or all red flowers or all blue flowers, that would not be very interesting. But the representation of all different varieties of flowers is what makes it special. And so, diversity, we need that representation from all the communities. Equity is exactly that. It means that everyone is treated equally but it’s also a recognition that some people perhaps do not have the start or do not have the benefits that come, I know the word privilege has been demonized but we all have privileges of some sort, some type. I had the privilege of growing up in a community with one of the best high schools in the country at the time, other people have other privileges.

And so, equity is the recognition that we want to give everyone an equal, equitable opportunity. You know, it’s about the opportunity that we wanna be equal, it’s not the outcome. And then finally, access, is we have incredible resources and opportunities that are available to all members of our community. It’s would not be an incorrect statement or an exaggeration to say that the Warrington College is one of the most prosperous colleges in the university.

 And then we’re not just talking about money. If you look at the programs that are available, if you look at the groups that are available, the leadership opportunities that are available, not to mention the job opportunities, and the career preparation, it is phenomenal. And so, we want to make these programs, these resources available to as broad a range of, primarily, we’ve got to address the needs of our community but we also, to the extent that we can, we also wanna reach out to the rest of the university, to the community as a whole and to the state as well.

Lord: Excellent, thank you so much, Dr. Thomas. We’re gonna take a quick break and we’re gonna be back with more in just a minute.

At the university of Florida, Warrington College of Business, students have the opportunity to learn from subject matter experts like Dr. Thomas and specialize their learning experience to fit their strengths and interests through multiple MBA program formats and eight specialized master’s degrees. With subject matter expertise and tailored curriculum, students are set up for immediate success within their chosen industry. To learn more about Warrington’s graduate degree options, check out warrington.ufl.edu/podcast/episode8. Again, that’s warrington.ufl.edu/podcast/episode8.

We’re back with the Assistant Dean for diversity and inclusion and Darden Restaurant’s professor diversity management, Dr. Robert Thomas. Right before the break, Dr. Thomas, we started talking about the concept of IDEA here at Warrington. What are some of the specific actions that we’ve taken towards this initiative?

Thomas: All right, we’ll start with representation. We have really jumped in feet first, headfirst, whatever, all in to recruiting. So, recruiting on all levels has been a big factor. We have two of these underrepresented groups, underrepresented communities coming in this year and undergraduate recruiting, we’ve started several programs.

We had our first recruiting, high school recruiting session probably a little bit over a week, maybe two weeks ago, where we, with the cooperation of Florida Central Admissions Office, we got the names of all individuals from underrepresented communities who have been accepted into the University of Florida who identify business as a likely major, and we invited them to an information session. So, we started that out. And so, we have no idea whether that has yielded anyone or how many it has yielded, but we’re gonna do that frequently.

The area that we are really struggling in, and frankly, I thought that the faculty recruiting would be the most difficult, the area that we’re really struggling in is the PhD recruiting. It has been a really tough nut to crack. We’re part of the PhD project which is a program that was set up about 26 years ago to try to encourage and educate young professionals from African American, Latinx and native American communities of the values and the benefits of going into a business PhD. And we have been involved in it and we have definitely ramped it up our involvement, but we haven’t been real successful.

Other things that we’ve done is we’ve really tried to push for more programming. So, with the aid of people from our career services group, like Michelle, we’ve had programs that helped show the benefit of being a person of color going into the corporate world. The fact that you can still make a difference even though you’re putting on this corporate mantle. And so those programs have been incredibly powerful.

We’ve had speaker series that have been involved. Going forward, we are going to have unconscious bias training for faculty and staff. Hopefully, we’ll move that down the line too soon. The MBA program has already done that for our full time MBAs. And so, we’re going to expand that to other forms. And so, those are some of the things that we are doing.

Lord: Yeah, I’d definitely like to that and partnering is such a huge thing. When I was in the MBA program, the diversity weekends that we launched and the career services office with the inroads of having strong representation of taking our students to NBMBAA every year, which is the National Black MBA Association, we’ve done some great things, but I hear you. It is really trying to get to these underrepresented communities and show them the highlights of the University of Florida and the inclusive nature that we do or push to try to represent.

Clearly, I’m passionate about this subject matter as a recruiter around here for the college and I always see and wanted to change the face of a lot of the things that we’re doing around here. We’ve seen so recently here this past year and in the media, all kinds of things that have just proven or have come across as racist and lots of hate out there and police brutality. And I just wonder if there’s any insights that you can share with our listeners on how they can engage with others on these topics so we can actually bring about some real change.

Thomas: Well, it’s two-sided. So, you’re not engaging with people when they’re shouting at each other. So, when you’re out there demonstrating one side against the other, that’s not gonna move them. That’s necessarily that it’s an essential part, I’m not trying to discourage anybody from demonstrating. I plan to get out there and have my banners as well.

But in terms of moving us forward as a school, as a community, as a state, as a country, we have to be willing to communicate, engage with each other. And most importantly, we have to be able to listen sincerely and non-judgmentally to what each other is saying. I know it can be extremely difficult when you are absolutely certain that you’re right and that the other side is wrong, but you have to do it.

My son-in-law who was someone that I hoped my daughter would not marry is of very, very different political persuasion than I am. And we used to really rub each other the wrong way. We blew up at each other. The wonderful thing about him is that he will engage. And once we got past caricaturing each other and started to sit down and try to listen and understand where each other is coming from, we moved forward. Now, did I persuade him? No, did he persuade me? No, but we have an understanding of who each other is. And that’s where we need to get to in this country.

It’s not a question about turning the other guy to your side, but it’s rather a question about understanding and accepting the differences. We are not going to be clones of each other, either looks or thoughts and we don’t wanna be. The differences are what makes us special, it’s what moves us forward. It’s what makes great companies, great companies, it’s what make great institutions, great institutions. So, we have to be able to listen.

Lord: Thank you for sharing that. I think that really got… I have a daughter. I got a little heated underneath this a little bit as you’re using that example. I do appreciate your insight on that. You know, it’s so tough.

Sometimes you sit here, me as a white guy and I feel so ignorant at times to even bridge this subject matter with folks, and I’ll have a dialogue about it and you’re right. You get passionate about things that are occurring out there and it does become pretty tough listening to the other side of things and hearing where people are coming from, and folks’ perception does drive a lot of these conversations and hopeful to get everyone on the right track.

So, moving here, now we’re at Warrington, we’re big on leadership and we teach our students how to be leaders. That’s something that I talk about all the time. Management, leadership, you’re gonna just become a little bit more strategic and making better decision as a whole, and even when it’s challenging out there. So, what advice do you have for being a leader or an advocate and champion for diversity and inclusion?

Thomas: First, you need to be sincere and passionate about it. If it’s just lip service, your focus and support for IDEA, then everybody’s gonna see through it and it’s not gonna make a difference. One of our big corporate partners is Procter & Gamble, and it’s very clear that the company’s character, their essence is devoted to our diversity and inclusion. And so, first step is be passionate about it. If you’re not passionate about it, then you need to have people around you who are. You actually need to find out why it’s important and why and how it benefits your organization. So, you need to develop that passion.

Once you have developed that passion, then the listening is so critical. Too often, we wanna jump in and do and change and fix. Women often talk about mansplaining, and I have been guilty of that. Okay, we all have. If we’re men, we’ve been guilty of that. And so, I like to step back always and say, and not jump to a conclusion, not offer a solution right away. So, one of the things in my negotiation class is so many of my students, both in full-time programs and in our professional programs that meet on the weekend, you have young people who are put in leadership roles where they are managing a team of individuals who may be as much as 30, 40 years older than they are. And they’re put in situations where they’re leading a group on tasks that these people have been doing for some, literally decades.

These people are the experts in their field. The focus is not on training them. You’re not going to get out there and show them how to wield, you’re not gonna get out there and teach them how to cope. But you do have skills that you bring to the table. You know all the components of the project. And so, listening, leadership is about listening, learning and admitting your mistakes, and then bringing everybody in and letting them know what the task is, why the role is important, why the timeline must be met and if it can’t be met, what is the reason why it can’t be met?

So, again, it’s like negotiations. It’s the same, regardless of business, where there’s business or otherwise. Leadership is the same, whether it’s in diversity and inclusion or any other aspect of, say, strategic management.

Lord: Great insight. Moving forward, and you’ve offered so much inspiration today, but I always ask my guests this question as I’m closing out the podcast, and it’s when things get tough and you’re feeling stressed with work and in life in general, how do you personally stay motivated and you keep pushing through it?

Thomas: What I like to do is I will get on my road bike. I wish I could engage Saby in doing this but he’s probably too fast for me. And I’ll probably go for a 20-mile bike ride or even maybe even a 30-mile bike ride. I’ll come out, I’ll be totally dead, I’ll have the endorphins flowing and life is good afterwards. Other thing that is always helpful is I can grab a camera and I can go out to the bird sanctuary and just spend a couple hours out there shooting the birds and again, this is with a camera, not a gun.

Lord: There’s absolutely a lot of places to go here and outside of Gainesville, which is phenomenal for anybody that enjoys nature, that is for sure. Dr. Thomas, it’s been great to talk with you today. Thank you so much for your time. Definitely all the insight that you provided today. And I gotta say, the humor that went along with it.

Thomas: You’re welcome. You do promise to edit out everything, right?

Lord: Absolutely editing everything. Yeah, it’s just gonna be a hum that’s playing over the radio with this by the time-

Thomas: There you go, that’s what I like. Did I tell you about my mantra? My Buddhist mantra? So, that should be me.

Lord: That would be a, “mmhmm.” For more news about our Warrington faculty, like Dr. Thomas, visit the newsroom and follow us on social media at UF Warrington. Until next time, stay motivated and keep investing in yourself.

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