Lessons From My Brother On Life, Career, and Taking a Different Path

© Dušan Zidar - Fotolia.com
© Dušan Zidar - Fotolia.com

Last week, I lost my best friend, my college roommate, my mentor, my mentee, my confidant, my consigliere, and most of all, my twin brother.

He passed away from complication from a terrible car accident that he never fully recovered from.

The loss for me is immense and my heart is broken.

Our family traveled to Raleigh/Cary, North Carolina area for the wake/services.

As part of the Thomas family tradition, once all the guests leave the house the night before the funeral, we gather around (just family members and close friends)  to tell stories about the deceased. We have perfected this ritual within the Thomas family.

Only one job — and no climb up the career ladder

Since my family has always been one who loves a good laugh, we all tell funny stories. I am sure the neighbors could not comprehend all the laughter on Friday night before the funeral.

My stories lead with college antics that we (my brother and I) pulled since he was my roommate for three years. What really brought silence, however, was when I told everyone that my brother was the only person I knew since college that worked in private enterprise and that only had one job.

Yes, that is not a typo.

He joined a large company as a sales rep in the Raleigh area in the mid-1970s. That was the launching pad, and that was also the only job that he would ever have. He held this job until about three years ago when he got into a terrible accident that had him laid up for close to a year.

He never really recovered. He eventually retired. His company threw a big dinner and he got the proverbial gold watch.

During all those years, there was plenty of opportunity for him to climb the ladder, but each time he was approached, he declined. However, they kept coming back to ask and the answer was still no.

Left alone — and flourishing

I once asked him why and he said that he was totally happy where he was. He loved his customers, they loved him, and each year he would lead or be right at the top of the sales chain. He did not want to manage people, which would have been the next step up the ladder.

All he wanted to do was sell. Helping his customers solve their problems was what he relished.

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In a lot of companies, I told him, he would have been phased out, but luckily his company finally agreed with him and they left him alone — and he continued to flourish each and every year.

I would always tease him that he was a relic of the past. I told him that if he worked within a company where I ran HR, I would literally not know what to do with him. His answer to that was: just leave me alone and let me do my job.

In our companies today, we are all diligently working on succession planning, engagement, and a host of other initiatives.

Making room for those on a different path

But there is no one size that fits all for anything anymore. There is also no career ladder anymore, but there is a lattice. Each person’s career journey is different.

Career development today is so much more than just identifying a series of career moves or steps on a walkway to the Holy Grail of career nirvana. Everyone has to understand their own personal brand.

Career plans must be developed and tailored to our talents and interests in order for both the organization and the person to be fulfilled.

The ladder of our parents careers were mostly an offshoot of the Industrial Revolution. Change has made this organically impossible for today’s workforce.

So, if you happen to have an employee like my brother Donald, leave him be. He may be just as valuable to your organization where he is as opposed to where his next step is up the career ladder.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


9 Comments on “Lessons From My Brother On Life, Career, and Taking a Different Path

  1. i watched the movie “blue valentine” last night. an exchange in it really resonated with me and connects to your brother’s wisdom. a character wondered about potential and why we have to realize it…according to others’ wishes. 

    i’m sure the loss of your brother is overwhelming. thanks for sharing something you cherish about him in this wonderful post. 


  2. Ron, I would have liked to know your brother.  Some of the best people I know have been doing essentially the same job, inside a corporation or not, for much of their career and are very happy being the best possible version of themselves every day.  I would put myself on that list.  As a solo consultant since 1987, I’ve resisted every flavor of job offer, of investors wanting to fund my starting an HRM software or services company, and of other well-intentioned and valued friends/family members offering their vision of what I could be.  There are many of us out here who really do want to do, as well as we can, one particular job.  Fortunately for your brother and for me, we’ve chosen (or been chosen by) jobs that are endlessly satisfying, highly variable, both challenging and challenged, and which provide sufficient income to meet our (perhaps modest) needs. 

  3. An touching and insightful personal story regarding how Donald found & maintained his passion within the dynamics of the corporate structure.  Tks for sharing this w/us

  4. Dear Ron-

    What a wonderful family tradition. How lucky you are. And what a blessing that your brother knew who he was and stuck to it, and that he worked for an employer who listened to his protests and just let him alone to do his job.

    Thank so much for giving us this insight into your family. Blessings on all of them.


  5. Ron, wonderful article about your brother, and life lessons. We all have to follow our own path and
    dreams. I know that you miss your brother, however you have such loving and warm memories
    of him that will always be with you and your family. Take care. 

  6. Ron, an outstanding tribute to your Brother,Best Friend.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us..Your closeness will never leave you.  Cherish the memories.  H.Conner

  7. When you and Donald were born, everyone who ever met the two of you were doubly blessed by your presence .  I am grateful that I grew up with such phenomenal boys who developed into phenomenal men.  Even though your best friend, twin brother, college roomate, and confidant has transitioned to another place, the memories will remain with you forever.  What a beatiful way to acknowledge the depth of your love. 

    Brenda J. Moses 

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