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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Learning through observing

People are endlessly fascinating to me. That's why I jump at any chance to write a profile. Case in point: I spent yesterday morning (from 8-1) with Thurmond Woodard, chief diversity officer at Dell Inc. The idea behind my visit with him was to get beyond consultant-speak and find out just what a diversity officer at a large corporation does.

I liked him instantly. His office is one of thousands of cubicles in Round Rock 1, one of many buildings on Dell's incredibly vast campus in suburban Austin, Texas. He was somewhat casual, but smartly dressed. One of the first topics was the fact that his son had recently moved back home because he's decided he doesn't like corporate work and wants to get his master's in education. Anyone who starts a get-to-know-you conversation with their children is okay by me.

He is very no-nonsense, asking me what my expectations were for the interview. I told him I wanted to get to know HIM and how he does his job and how he gets buy-in. He was game and so we headed to our first meeting—a conference call with the senior manager of diversity for the Europe, Middle East and Africa. Based in Madrid, Spain, this woman was fairly new to her job and had a huge task ahead of her. Dell is growing exponentially in those areas and she is charged with ensuring it employs a diverse talent base at all levels.

She was feeling overwhelmed by aspects of her job. I watched as Thurmond listened intently, occasionally scribbling notes. And then, as effective leaders often do, he started by saying, "What I'm hearing from you is that you have too much on your plate." The answer, of course, was that she did. So he simply said to her the top two priorities for the company were talent acquisition and work/life issues. And instantly she knew her priorities and how those fit with the business imperatives.

We went on to two other meetings in which his first step was always to listen. Although he offered feedback, he didn't offer answers, preferring to let people find their own solutions. He may have had one in mind, but he says they won't own the solution if it's handed to them.

There was a certain rushed feeling to the day and I didn't want to waste any time getting to know the man. I kept my tape recorder going as we walked from meeting to meeting and building to building. And that's where I found the meat of my story. In these very casual conversations he revealed a deep affection for his lifelong mentor, how his father empowered him to be a leader, why he left the lucrative world of consulting for Dell, how he and his wife are enjoying their lives as empty-nesters. I watched him laugh and joke with the many young people on his staff. I heard of how he spent the first six months on the job simply defending his presence. I saw him coach and nudge people along in such a way as to empower them and I thought--only for a moment--how great it would be to work for him.

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