Shundrawn Thomas’s father worked in the steel mills in the Midwest, and when Thomas was a child, the mills closed down. But his father continued to work. He immediately picked up a job cleaning floors at a hospital, even though the work was so far from his training in mechanical engineering from when he was in the Air Force.
“He taught me very early on that there was dignity in all work, and the importance of not just solely thinking about the role,” Thomas said. From age 11 or so, Thomas ran his own little lawn mowing business in the neighborhood, which turned out to be far from profitable because he hadn’t figured out how to price things correctly. Then during the winters, he pivoted the business to shoveling snow. One of his first jobs during high school was selling TV guides via telemarketing.
His parents also taught him the importance of education. His father later went back to school at night and finished his college degree, and his mother did as well, finishing her bachelor’s and pursuing a master’s while Thomas was in high school, before beginning her career as a social worker. They were civically minded and steadfast in their faith; early in Thomas’s life, they had opened a local church as well, and had always been involved in helping others’ spiritual development.
“So my view from their example was, gosh if my parents can work, raise a family, go to school at nights, and they were always very involved in the community, in church, working with people … if they can do those things, I don’t have any excuse. It showed me a very strong example,” Thomas said.
Thomas is president of a trillion-dollar global investment management business, a motivational speaker, author, minister at his local church, and among other things, father to two sons he’s led actively, the way he feels his parents did for him.
Good mentors beget good mentors, and Thomas has always been that person, even as a junior employee, to help out newer people even just two years behind him.
And what he has found over the years is a common phenomenon of disengagement.
“I’ve been in various executive roles, and a big part of that job is working with people on their professional and even personal development,” he said. He was surprised to find how many extraordinarily talented people were unmotivated.
“It’s surprising to find how many … weren’t committed to their work or really felt positive in their workplace,” he said.
Thomas had certainly experienced dissatisfaction in work himself, so during a recent self-assessment, he had the idea to share his lessons.
“People care very much about what they get paid, remuneration, that’s natural. People care a lot about being recognized, and praise can be used in constructive ways in the workplace. People want to be respected in their roles. I refer to those three R’s,” he said. “The challenge is, though … if you are only driven by those external motivations, you cannot find true fulfillment in your work.”
“You’re constantly feeling like you’re coming up short or there’s something missing,” Thomas said. “I had realized, for myself, that the inner motivations have to weigh more than those [external motivations].”
What Is Joy?
Thomas has compiled his experiences, workplace research and studies, and many interviews with people across a variety of disciplines into his latest book, “Discover Joy in Work.”
“When I think about joy, that’s something that gives you deep pleasure or delight, something more than satisfying. Think about if you’re on a team and you guys had a heartfelt victory—this is great, you feel triumphant,” Thomas said. But to be clear, he adds, reality dictates no one can be in a permanent state of joy. Disaster may strike, and we cannot stay unaffected.
“But the point is this: There are so many opportunities for us to find deep meaningfulness, enjoying what we do in our work, and such that that becomes something we understand we can seek, that we understand that we can and should experience, and that it should be a common and frequent experience for us in the workplace.”
“And when we learn that, what happens is when we run into those inevitable tough points or setbacks, you learn how to experience joy. So you more readily know how to recover,” he said.
Values and Vocation
Thomas talks about vocation, what is sometimes referred to as a calling.
Early in the book, Thomas writes about a conversation with a friend. He had read an article about teachers quitting in droves, and asked his friend why she became a teacher. This friend, Lisa, recounted an almost miraculous event where she knew in an instant this what she was meant to do.
Most of us will not have these “exceptional moments,” or hear a voice with the answer to life’s mysteries, but there is nothing to stop you from finding and living with meaning and purpose.
As a mentor, Thomas always starts with helping people discover their values, and then realize how to articulate and live out those values.
“Values are deeply held beliefs,” he said. “Once we go out into the world, your values are always going to be tested. So growing in your character is actually being able to be true to those things that you believe.”
He will ask and suggest a strengths-finding assessment or a personality matrix as a starting point, because people don’t always know how they communicate, how they tend to function in teams, or how they view fear, achievement, impact, and so on.
“It’s not about any of these assessments being magical … one of the biggest gaps is often self-awareness,” Thomas said.
The next step in discovering is helping people discover what they’re really good at and actually enjoy, because it’s just a fact that people feel better about their work when they can do things they’re really good at. Lastly, the organization—what is the mission, what is the culture, and can you get in touch with it, understand and appreciate it?
The book itself is arranged in a way that can guide reflection on the internal factors, from changing your attitude, to assessing your work ethic, and finding value in work itself.
Thomas is very transparent that his perspectives also stem from his Christian faith—faith is at the top of his list of values. It’s what guides his approach to relationships and motivates his focus on character growth.
“We really endeavor to love everyone, and really endeavor to see everybody as unique and special,” he said. “It’s been really important to me in terms of how I develop and invest in relationships with people.”
“And as a foundational part of my belief, I believe that grace … is given to me by God. And I think when I do my work at my very best when I bring all the skills and talents to bear in the best way that I can, when I treat people in the way that people deserve, right, and I show them respect, and even love through our interactions with work, I think ultimately, that effort and that action, brings glory to God, our Creator. And so that’s a perspective that I have.”
“It is a belief in something bigger than yourself and your present circumstances,” Thomas said. This sense was instilled in him from an early age, where throughout the highs and lows, faith sustained the family.
Thomas is not one of those people who had a moment of inspiration and discovered out of the blue where his professional path should lead. He’d developed an interest in personal and micro-finance while taking a high-school economics course and pursued his interest through education, internships, and other opportunities.
The intellectual rigor and dynamic nature of factoring in global events and politics and areas of vast ambiguity, coupled with the opportunity to help people achieve their life goals, is continually fulfilling for Thomas.
“I think what happens when you get really in touch with your values … you start to feel that calling,” Thomas said.