104 : True Transformation (w/ Rah Thomas)
Zach sits down with Rah Thomas, a managing director in Accenture's Infrastructure Operations practice with over 15 years of experience. They discuss his role with the company and what it looks like to create access for other black and brown folks that are coming behind him. Rah also shares a few points of advice for today’s young leaders.
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Zach: What's up, y'all? It's Zach with Living Corporate. Now, look, again, y'all know what it is. Y'all should know by now, okay? We've been doing this thing for a few weeks, but again, if you don't know, you're about to know. Living Corporate has partnered with Accenture to feature some of their most black and brown--senior black and brown managing directors to share their journeys. My hope is you listen to these, check 'em out, and you peep the links in the show notes to learn more about each of them, including our interview for the day, today, Rah Thomas. Rahnold, Rah, Thomas is a managing director in Accenture's infrastructure operations practice with over 15--that's right, 15--years of experience. His primary focus is digital workforce transformation and infrastructure transformation to the cloud. Okay, that sounds, like, super fancy, I recognize, you know what I'm saying? But just come on. Vibe with me. Rah is also the national co-lead for the African-American employee resource group. He works across all inclusion and diversity workstreams, meeting with senior executives to improve recruitment, progression, and retention of top talent, okay? So this interview is gonna be dope. Listen, okay? He got the insight. He got the juice. He has the technical know-how, the background, and he's plugged into these spaces to have the real conversations, okay? That's why I'm really excited to talk to Rah today. The core to both of these positions is seeing past the optics and standard view of people, process, technology, and then streamlining that into maximizing the real underlying value, okay? With that being said, let's get to it.
Zach: Rah, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Rah: Man, I'm feeling great out here, man. Feeling blessed, feeling blessed.
Zach: Amen, amen. So look, for those of us who don't know you, would you mind sharing a little bit about yourself?
Rah: Yeah, yeah, yeah, man. I'm from the Bronx. New York.
Zach: Okay, okay. Yerp. Let's go. [both laugh]
Rah: I think by day I'm a managing director or partner for Accenture. I lead some of our diamond clients in technology and innovation, and then I also run the national African-American employee resource group for Accenture. So I'm helping shape our major diversity initiatives.
Zach: That's incredible. So look, can we talk a little--can you unpack that a bit? Like, you have--you just said that you're one of the major partners for your diamond clients, and then you said you're the national lead for the African-American ERG. So those are two huge roles. Can you talk a little bit about both of those and what those actually mean?
Rah: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely, man. I think--I think that being--on the technical side, I think that's sort of my craft, right? So I do cloud, right? I do service management, digital workplace automation, sort of helping do innovation for our clients. I have about four or five diamond clients that I help sort of push the line of innovation, which is a great segue into what I do from a diversity and inclusion perspective because I help our people of color--I mean, I'm the African-American lead, but I work with the Latinos, I work with our Pride, I work with all of our diversity and inclusion folks, and I help sort of shape that. You know, like, what is it from our targeted's perspective? You know, how do we handle things like escalations [and] things of that nature? So I go across the gamut nationally for all of that.
Zach: That's incredible. You know, I love that because--when you talk about the fact that you're working across, because I think while every experience, every non-white experience, is unique, there's commonality in the fact that--and there's commonality in being some type of--just having a non-white experience, a non-majority experience, and so the fact that you're working across there is beautiful. And in fact, what I also think is interesting--and I'm late to the game, Rah. I didn't really learn until I was, like, in high school and college that the black diaspora is spread so far. So, like, when you talk about partnership across the Latinx spaces, so many Latinx folks are also black, right?
Rah: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Well, so my wife is Ecuadorian, and my kids--so, like, trying to sort of help my children grow up and stuff like that, it's fierce out here.
Zach: It is. It is. Yeah, yeah, for sure. So let's talk about a panel you were on last September for Black Enterprise. You participated in--what they called it was "a real conversation about succeeding while black and the dangers of truth and perception in corporate America." So, again, you keep dropping bombs, and that's kind of been a--that's been really, frankly, a theme across all of these leadership interviews, but can you talk about what brought that discussion and what that discussion was really about? Can you unpack that a bit?
Rah: Yeah. I mean, I think--so I know you can't really see me out here, you know, but, I mean, I am a black man with dreadlocks.
Zach: Yes, sir.
Rah: And I am a partner at the #1 consulting firm in America. Globally actually, right? So the challenges that I had to sort of come against--you know, I got kicked out of board rooms. I've had some real real experiences, and I had to talk about sort of some of the authenticity that I had to bring to the table. Being unapologetically black, however still giving way for comfortability for people to understand my point of view and helping them innovate and move their bottom line. So it was really a dialogue about, you know, how do you do that while trying to break the glass ceiling? Which keeps changing. Glass ceiling, rubber ceiling, concrete ceiling. You know, it keeps changing on you, right? So you're trying to unpack all of that. So it was--it was a good discussion with a lot of successful black men where we delved into that.
Zach: Now, wait a minute. Now, you know, Rah, I can't let you just slide that by. You said you got kicked out of a board room?
Rah: [laughs] Yeah, man.
Zach: You gotta--I need to hear that. I gotta hear that.
Rah: Oh, you're [?]? [laughs]
Zach: I mean, you--you opened the door. I'm trying to understand how you got kicked--I want to hear that story.
Rah: Well, I mean, it was just--you know, I think I'm one of the best at what I do, and I'm confident, and I walked in with my client and I was like, "Listen, this is what we got," and, you know, my client's boss, who was a C-level executive, was like, "What are you doing in the board room here with dreadlocks?" And I'm like, "Well, you know times are changing," you know? And then I started my presentation and he was like, "Listen, you sit down." He was like, "Actually, don't say another word or you'll never work for this company again," and I was like, "What?" And my client was like, "Yo, Rah. Hey, back down a little bit. Back down." So I let it ride, but--and that experience, which was crazy, wasn't the crux of [?]--I mean, it had an experience on me, but it was how my company responded to it that really pushed me to be like, "Yeah, this is what I need to do," because what happened was after that, then my company then came to me and said, "Hey, Rah. If you don't ever want to work in this space again, we don't have to do that. We know you're good at what you do. We know that you can change the world and innovation, so if you don't want to work with this client anymore, we don't have to." And I was like, "Wow, man, that's powerful."
Zach: Dang, that's crazy. So the client was talking to you crazy, and then Accenture was looking back at the client like [haha sfx].
Rah: Yeah, just like that. Exactly like that. [laughs]
Zach: "Haha." [both laugh] That's wild. So okay, okay. Well, look, I know that was--well, it really wasn't a non-sequitur, because you opened the door, and I wanted to hear about how that happened. Okay. So in my experience, in the instances where there are black and brown folks who make it to senior executive roles, they're often leading in, like, a technical specialty, right? So they solve--this is from what I've seen, Rah. I'm not saying this is the way of life. I'm saying this is something I have observed. So they observe a particular problem, and they solve a particular problem in a particular way. So I believe your role is a little bit different in that you're having to lead strategic conversations and work to connect the dots across a variety of specialties to deliver the most effective solutions. Can we talk a little bit about your experiences in such a connected and integrated role and what you've learned in navigating these spaces?
Rah: Yeah. I mean, I think the biggest thing about it is--right now I think folks can't see the future. Folks cannot see the future right now, and if you look at it, 50% of the Fortune 500 companies over the past 15 years have gone bankrupt. So right now they're all scrambling, right? Normally they'd like to look around 5, 10, 15, 20 years in advance, and they can't see that. At any given time, a Google or an Uber can pop up and change the game. So right now all of these senior executives are really looking and saying, "Hey, we need to absolutely tap the best of people. We need to tap the best talent period. We don't care if it is white talent. We don't care if it is black, Latino, Puerto Rican, Asian, whatever," right? "We need the best talent, because we don't know where that next idea is gonna come from." So that's primed for diversity right now, right? That's where we live. So I think that that's sort of at the crux of where we're at right now. So yes, I understand from a technical perspective I'm good at what I do and what I have to--I have to reinvent myself every three or four years, so I gotta keep being on the edge of things, but more than ever I have to--I wear the extra hat to inspire other people to be authentic so that they can unpack that untapped potential, because they might have the next great idea, and it might come from a hard-working single mother who's been doing 15 years working at Target trying to, you know, do 1-2-3 at Target as a manager, raising three or four kids in the Bronx, and that single mother might come up with the great new idea that runs the world. So it's, like, understanding that. You have to think differently about how you do business.
Zach: Now, that's incredible. You're so right, because with technology brings a certain level of, like, a democratization of innovation, right? Like, it's not--it's not just gonna be reserved for this certain group over here. The access is opening up, and I really--I'm curious about this. What does it look like for you, being in the position that you are, to--what does it look like for you to create access for other black and brown folks that are coming behind you? Like, what does it look like for you to lift as you climb, and how does that practically work in your position?
Rah: I mean, I think--yeah, I mean, like I said, I started the call with "I'm blessed," right? I mean, I'm blessed because God has given me the opportunity to actually have the ability to create opportunities for people, right? I mean, which is--it's amazing, and I actually--you know, I got put on--I advise corporate CEOs, and I'm advising our CEO, I'm advising our C-suite and letting them know, "Hey, listen, you know, this is what a population is feeling, and this is how a population wants to evolve," and they're, like--and they're listening. They're actually coming to the table, and they're like, "Wait, we had no clue," and I'm like, "Yes." So it's enlightening. It's enlightening and humbling.
Zach: That's incredible. That's awesome. So, you know, it's interesting--to that point--we're seeing shifts in how we're being represented. I would say as millennials continue to expand their corporate footprint. We're seeing the largest group of black and brown leaders in the workplace, right? So, like, millennials, we're not the youngest, sexiest kids on the block no more--sexiest kids? That's mad problematic. You know what I mean though. What three points of advice would you give to young leaders today?
Rah: Hm. All right, so I would say--three things? I would say be authentic, be vulnerable, and have the dialogue, okay? But I almost have to unpack that, right?
Rah: So I say "Be authentic." You gotta say it with your chest, right? Be unapologetic. Be black or Latino. Be whoever you are, because it is--it is that thing that might propel you to the next--you know, next plateau. "Be vulnerable," because sometimes when you share some of these deep stories and you work through--I started sharing stories about my family, and all of a sudden I got--you know, a Jewish person in Middle America is just like, "Wow, wait a minute. That same thing happened to me." I'm like, "Whoa, really?" So you start doing that. You start connecting with people. And then have the dialogue, 'cause--I'll bet it might be uncomfortable, but you have to have the conversation. We owe it to our ancestors to have the conversations and build these connections, because sometimes people don't actually know. That's what ignorance is. The definition of ignorance is not knowing, right? So people don't actually know, and if you could sit down--if you can muster within yourself to sit down and have that dialogue, man, you can really, really change the world.
Zach: Man. "We owe it to our ancestors." Hold on. [Flex bomb sfx]. I had to drop that. Man. Come on, man. "We owe it to our ancestors," man. That's real, man. So let me pause for a second, 'cause we have these questions--you said earlier about being unapologetic in who you are. Do you have any practical examples of coaching that you've given somebody--I'm not asking you to out nobody--around, like--what is some advice you would give in terms of how folks can be more unapologetic? Because we've had episodes--and the reason I ask is we've had episodes in the past where we talk about respectability politics, right? Like, the concept that if you behave, dress, speak a certain way, that majority folks will forget that you're not in the majority, that in some way that is some type of covering or camouflage for you. What does it look like for you when you give coaching and advice and direction and guidance to black and brown folks at Accenture? What does that look like for you to encourage them to actually be themselves? 'Cause you've talked about a little but, but I want to hear--
Rah: You want the meat, right?
Zach: Please. Please.
Rah: [laughs] You know, I think it's--it's actually different, right? And I'm learning. I want you to--you know, I'm not the full expert on it, because I think that I have to be humble and learn on it, but I think that there's--it's different for black, and it's different for Latino, right? For black, which is one in the same, that--it's more about the visual aspect, right, and bringing your authentic self from a visual perspective, and then from Latino, you have to recognize that it's bringing your authentic self from a listening and an audible perspective, right? So I try to make sure that as I'm coaching folks I try to take in multiple lenses, but I feel like me doing what I do can unconsciously give you the ability to do what you do, and I think--I was a keynote for one of these speakers at a women's empowerment conference, and I went there, and I wore my Ecuadorian jersey, and I had my suit coat on, and people were like, "Wait, what is he doing?" And I'm like, "No, I'm being me. I'm wearing my Ecuadorian jersey, and I'm wearing my suit coat, and I got my [?] on, and I'm me," right? But it was so amazing. I even--I talked about my father being in prison. I talked about some of these crazy things, and people were like--you know how many people came up to me and were like, "Wow! Wait, you're in corporate America and you've got family members that are in prison?" Or "Wait, you're in corporate America and--" Pow. I mean, I had transgender, I had everybody come up to me saying, "Wow." Like, "I want to talk to you about my situation," and I was like, "Pow." But it was me being able to be myself that unlocked other people's ability to be themselves, if that makes sense.
Zach: No, it does, and you're absolutely right, Rah. So I know for me, coming in--I'm one of the first men in my family, on my mom's side of the family, to start and graduate from college, and I'm one of the few people in my entire family in corporate America. So not really seeing a model of what--how to practice authenticity, you know, in my immediate familial circle, coming into the workplace and seeing an example of that, it is empowering. And, like, you will never forget--you'll never forget those experiences or those--when you see it, and so that's incredible. This has been dope. Now--
Rah: I was gonna say it's almost like the line, you know, "when keeping it real goes wrong."
Rah: We have to almost combine that with recognizing [?], like, "when keeping it real goes right."
Zach: Real talk. Well, a lot of us--a lot of times we think that, you know, if we do something too wrong it's gonna be like [record scratch sfx], right? You know what I'm saying? Like, [?], right?
Rah: Yeah. [laughs]
Zach: But it's not, right? Like, we actually have--we actually have a lot more power than I think we've been in some ways conditioned to believe, right?
Rah: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Zach: Okay, so last--so I got just a couple more. Now, you've also talked about the fact that you sit down with executives. You're having these conversations. They're actually listening to you. Based on your experiences, what would you say that organizations who are seeking to improve their engagement with black and brown talent--what are some things that they need to be thinking about and considering as they--if that's a pivot or a move they're trying to make as they seek to be more diverse and inclusive?
Rah: Yeah, definitely. So I think the first thing is there is a lack of trust from the black community with corporate America across the board. So I think the first thing that you need to do in order to start building that trust is transparency. So when we start talking about the demographics, we start talking about compensation, we start talking about numbers, we start talking about, you know, what are our targets to make sure we can change things, that level of transparency is the start of a conversation, right? It's not the end all, like, "Hey, we published numbers and demographics. We're there." It's really around the start, and then the next thing is that we need to start talking about "Hey, what does good really look like?" "What does the utopia of the world really look like in corporate America, and how do we really achieve that?" And making sure that we're--we just did a leadership conference this past week, and I learned something completely new about transgender and the fact that they're struggling with bathrooms. And I'm like, "Wow." Wasn't even thinking about it, right? So it's--like, we have to listen to our people. So yes, be transparent and publish your information and start getting that level of transparency, but then second is sit down and listen. And when you start listening, "What?" [both laugh]
Zach: No, you're absolutely right. And it's funny because--and by funny I mean it's frustrating, and often times infuriating, that, you know, when black and brown folks--when non-white cis heterosexual folks, when they're sitting down--able-bodied, non-able-bodied, disabled people--when folks in the minority speak up and they share their experiences, like, there's a huge level of emotional labor that comes with that. So I agree with you. It's imperative that if you're gonna have folks who have the courage to share something, it's not enough just to kind of nod and be like, "I empathize." It's about "Okay, well, how do we meet you and figure out ways to actually make sure that our culture is inductive to you being comfortable and thriving here," right?
Rah: Yeah. So can I drop--I'm gonna drop one more on you right here.
Zach: Come on. [both laugh]
Rah: You're pulling me out. "Bring him out, bring him out!" [both laugh] So I think that it's not enough to be unapologetically black. You have to also accept those that are authentic in their world when it conflicts with yours. Okay, I'ma throw that back one more time.
Zach: Say it one more time.
Rah: [laughs] Right? It's because you can't let other people's inability to comprehend your greatness define how you're gonna be great, but you have to give them a way to be themselves as well. Because if we can't understand their opposition, they will never be able to understand our plight. So we have to come down to the table and say, "Listen, I need to talk to you, and I understand that everything you stand for is against what I stand for, but let's sit down and have a conversation." And when you do that you're like, "Wait, we've got more in common than we have apart," and that's when you start building bridges and connections.
Zach: I love that. And I would imagine, Rah, because of the role in which you sit--you know, you're a MD for diamond clients, so you're having to work with all types of folks every day.
Rah: Yes, sir. Yeah.
Zach: And so it's about that relationship building. I'm gonna go off script one more time. [both laugh] So when I think about your brand--and I know what you look like, right? I looked on LinkedIn. I've seen the video where you talk about your hair and you talk about your faith. You know, what does it look like to manage--to manage relationships with folks who are not expecting a Rah when you walk through the door? And really what does it also look like when you--considering your position and your influence and your authority, what does it look like to really manage relationships with folks who might not be comfortable with a black--I'ma just say, frankly, with a black man telling them what to do or telling them what he thinks frankly. Like, what does that--what does that look like? How do you--like, I'm really curious about that, because I worked at Accenture some years ago--and I only knew, like, a handful of MDs at the time, and none of them were [?], so I'm really--like, this has been a question I've actually been wanting to ask just for myself. I've been wanting to know this personally. Like, what does that look like? 'Cause I'm just--I just believe that the folks that are running the diamond accounts--I'm sorry, the folks that are these executives, they're not used to--I just don't think that they're used to a black person telling them what they should be doing. So I'm just--I want to know. I really do.
Rah: Yeah. So I gotta answer that in two ways, right? So first I gotta say sometimes I walk into a room, and I sit down, and I try to plug in my laptop, and I crawl under the desk and plug in my computer, and you get up, and I've had people be like, "Hey, can you go fix the projector for me?" And I'm like, "Wait, I'm actually the dude who's presenting." Right? [both laugh] You know? Right? So you have to--you can't get discouraged by that part, right? So that's the one hand that you have to experience, and you have to--you can't be like--you can't get mad and get your aggressions out. You can't do that, right? Because then I've also experienced a white male Catholic, you know, dudes that invite me to a male empowerment in the middle of America, and I went in there--I was like, "Wait, why is he asking me to go here? This could be dangerous."
Zach: Straight up.
Rah: [laughs] Right?
Zach: They'd be like, "Hey, we'll go meet you out in the middle of the woods." You'd be like [never have the chance sfx].
Rah: [laughs] Right? But I went out there, and I walked into this meeting, and there was about 20, 25 white males, and they walked up to me and they gave me a hug. And I was like, "What? What is--" I'm from New York. "What's going on here?" Right? And they started sharing stories, and they started giving me insights in my life. Like, I travel a lot, and they were like, "Yo, hey, if you travel a lot, you know, you should call your daughter on FaceTime so that she doesn't get disconnected from you." I'm like, "Wow," and I'm like, "Wait, why am I connecting with these white male Catholic Middle America Republican folks more than I'm connecting with some of these people that are in the hood that are trying to do different things," right? So I'm like, "Wait." You have actually have to sit down and have the dialogue.
Rah: Pow. [both laugh]
Zach: Rah, man, you are fun, man. I'm loving this. [both laugh] Okay, this has been dope. Before we get out of here, any parting words or shout-outs?
Rah: Yo, this is dedicated to the youth, respectfully dedicated onward and upward. [?]! Sorry, had to throw that out there. But yeah, man, I just--I appreciate it. I do this for the people, and, you know, I just appreciate you having me on the show man.
Zach: Man, I appreciate you as well, and man, look, we gotta--you know, we dropped a couple of Flex bombs. You know, I've been working on this soundboard, Rah, so I'm trying to, like--I'm trying to, like, add a little pizzazz to the show, you know what I'm saying? So I'm also gonna drop these real quick. [air horns sfx]
Rah: Oh! [both laugh] Oh, man.
Zach: Oh, man. Rah, we consider you a friend of the show, and man, I hope we can have you back.
Rah: Definitely. Definitely, man. Thanks for having me, man.
Zach: All right, peace.
Rah: All right, peace.