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A Great Leader Loves to Learn

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Diana Thomas

One glance at Diana Thomas’ bookshelves in the office of her Naples home attests to what may be her greatest asset for business success: She’s always learning.

Fortunately for those who come to her for career coaching, she shares. Not only the lessons learned as a jet-setting corporate executive, but as a person balancing career with relationships, interests and family—in short, life.

Her shelves are arranged into squares— the yoga section (she teaches), the Carl Hiaasen collection, the travel books, cookbooks and plenty devoted to all aspects of business. Occupying a few slots are copies of her book, Be More Strategic in Business: How to Win through Stronger Leadership and Smarter Decisions, co-written with Stacey Boyle.

Thomas says she loves to learn, and always has. Growing up in the Maryland-D.C. area, she says her favorite pastime was to play “school” with her sister.

“I wanted to be a teacher since I was 4 years old,” she says.

A part-time job at a newly opening McDonald’s in Maryland in 1979 set her on a path as an instructor but not into a traditional classroom. After jobs with increasing responsibility at McDonald’s, and very close to graduating with a teaching degree, Thomas took a career test that revealed she’d fit well in a human resources role. She switched majors.

Armed with “a unique confidence” she says was instilled by her father, a pharmaceutical sales representative “who would say ‘You can do anything,’” she talked to her supervisor at McDonald’s who told her to call the corporate office, which led to a meeting and a regional internship and increasingly more important roles within the company.

“My managers always taught me how to do things, whatever I wanted to learn,” she says.

Before long, she was spending her time overseeing the company’s Hamburger University and immersed in training on a corporate level for McDonald’s full time.

Thomas eventually became vice president of Learning, Development and Education for McDonald’s USA.

On the top of that bookshelf is a traditional gift from her former company: a pair of oversized Ronald McDonald shoes, signed by colleagues to mark her early retirement—at 53.

In her leadership business based in Naples today, she employs what she has learned to usher proven managers to greater career heights through individual coaching, a biweekly podcast and her book, published in 2018.

Today, she works with leaders who are already strong, she says, most often through referrals from someone in the company who recognizes the leader’s talent and wants Thomas to help develop it.

Some firms hire her to coach a group into higher management roles. Sometimes she helps a corporation with succession planning.

Thomas’ book carries endorsements from leadership coaching gurus Marshall Goldsmith and Stephen M.R. Covey—son of 7 Habits author Stephen Richards Covey and also a best-selling leadership development author and coach.

Thomas said she learned valuable lessons also from Joel Barker and Zig Ziglar. And the student has again become a teacher.

 

Five Insights: Advice for leaders from Diana Thomas

1. Know how you show up. Are you making the impression you want to make? It’s not only about how you look, but the way you communicate, including your delivery.

2. Focus on the big picture. Don’t get caught up in the busywork.

3. Hire the best and motivate them.

4. Continually learn. Be energized by learning more about your industry, your company.

5. Focus on the most important things. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. This is about work-life balance as well. Only say “yes” to the most important things. Delegate.

 

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