CFAR, President and Principal
New York University, Senior Presidential Fellow
A Capstone to the Celebration of Making a Leadership Change.
As we conclude 2023 and our celebration of the 35th anniversary of Tom Gilmore’s book, Making a Leadership Change, we are reminded of the many gifts we have received from Tom during his decades as a Principal at CFAR. This series has reminded us just how broad and wide his impact was and is. Tom lives the meaning of this wonderful book through his own contributions as a founder at CFAR, having done the hard work along with his co-founders to create leadership (and ownership) transition in their own firm, with the endless cycle of humility, courage and persistence required to make that transition. He also created enduring learning partnerships with colleagues and clients far and wide, modeling the best of the kind of partnership CFAR strives for in all its work. Importantly, he has been a connector of the first order, always quick to help people with shared interests and passions build their own relationships with each other in the most generative way possible.
We (Ellen and Debbie) met twenty-four years ago when Tom brought us together for a joint project at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. Our collaboration and joy in each other’s work have flourished ever since. Today, we close the series about Making a Leadership Change by sharing examples of the gifts that Tom Gilmore has given us—and continues to give us—including the gift of each other.
- He got us to write.
All who know Tom have had the experience of HIS voice, quite literally in your ear, encouraging you to translate your work and your ideas into something written. His gentle but persistent nudge of “It’s 70% of the way there already” or “Why not pump around those ideas to—fill in the blank—colleagues, collaborators, clients.” All who have had the pleasure of Tom’s colleagueship have had the pressure of the Tom Gilmore writing conscience to translate experience or nascent ideas into something that starts to look like knowledge. And more times than not, the knowledge is co-created with others. His generosity with this gift seemed to know no limits.
I don’t think I would be at NYU, let alone a tenured professor, without him. (Ellen)
He pushed me to write “The Weakness of a Strong Leader,” which shaped numerous ideas and writing to follow. (Debbie)
- He teaches us to be reflective practitioners.
Tom always created space in the work for reflection and learning, wisely prioritizing it over the mad rush of “to dos” that so easily pulls attention away from reflection. He pushed for beginning team reflections on how the team did together, inviting feedback and offering it before focusing on what needed to happen next. When faced with perplexing moments in work, he encouraged taking risks to write helpfully provocative notes to leaders, offering observations about the challenges we saw as an invitation to further engage.
Tom was a mentor from my early days at CFAR. In 1999, when we suffered through a large group event gone wrong, we each independently—and unknowingly—wrote a reflective piece about the experience, only to discover at a CFAR retreat that we had written about the same moment—and that our reflections echoed each other and led to important insights. (Debbie)
- He is not only an incredible thought partner, but an incredible action partner.
Tom is one of the smartest people we know. But he is not the kind of smart that diminishes others—in fact, every interaction with Tom leaves us feeling smarter. He prompts thinking by sharing the work of others—Barry Oshry, Don Schon, Ed Schein and others—while simultaneously helping to translate thinking into actionable steps that would move the needle in any given situation.
Working with Tom fueled my own growth as a thinking consultant. He helped me interpret what I was experiencing, turn to someone else’s thinking when I needed to get unstuck, and then turn back to the work at hand—all within the course of a conversation. (Debbie)
Tom coached me in my leadership, there for me when I needed advice yet encouraging me to act even when I was finding my own way. (Ellen)
- Tools—tools, tools, and more tools.
Tom created clever structures for advancing work and was often the first to draw on a CFAR tool when its application could make a difference. He believed in the power of a good tool to create the opening for impactful work and discussion—history of the future, idealized design, the campaign approach to change, decision charting, and more. He taught us about the unique impact that well-crafted tools could have— not a shortcut to the hard work of change, but rather an accessible tunnel into the heart of the matter, a beginning, not an end.
I carry Tom‘s briefing notes from role to role and continue to rely on and live off his tools. Would be lost without them. (Ellen)
- He introduced us to each other.
We met in 1999 when Debbie had just started working at CFAR, and Ellen was a faculty member at the Wagner School at NYU. Ellen gave Debbie advice about finding her voice and confidence in her work as a consultant and Debbie embodied the consultant role in ways Ellen could adapt. Our relationship has grown with us, occupying the spaces of co-conspirators, co-authors, colleagues, client-consultant, and trusted friends. At a recent retreat that allowed us to work together “officially,” we marveled at the gift of a relationship like this. We are very grateful to Tom, his wisdom, his generosity, and his friendship.