Top exec (and alum) offers tips on business success

Thomas Lokar, a high-placed executive at an international telecommunications company and a University of Detroit graduate, shared advice with Detroit Mercy students last week.  (Photo by Loreal Dodson)



The ability to influence others is the key to leadership, a top telecommunications official told Detroit Mercy students Thursday.

“Know how to talk and package things,” said Thomas Lokar, chief human resources officer at Mitel, an international communications corporation. “The characteristic that is most successful in leadership is the ability to influence.”  

Lokar spoke to students about leadership and organizational effectiveness as part of an open house hosted by the university’s industrial and organizational psychology program.

A 51-year-old father of five, Lokar began his journey to the upper echelons of the corporate world in 1984 at what was then called the University of Detroit.

After finishing his undergraduate work here, he earned a master’s degree at California State University and a PhD at Kansas State University.

Even in the field of psychology, “leadership matters,” Lokar said. “After graduate school, I started at a consulting firm for seven years and did leadership assessments that would help me for the rest of my life.”

Every company has different needs and problems and knowing how to sell an idea to solve these problems is crucial, he said.

This was the first of many messages he shared with students.

Lokar, who was a senior vice-president at AOL earlier in his career, began his talk focusing on challenges and trends in leadership.

He contended that the challenges of leadership have not changed since he was in school.

The first challenge is managing a company’s culture.

“Culture is still very important to a company,” Lokar said, “and culture very often is defined by the leaders.”

He placed culture at the top of his challenges.

“Habitual culture is tough to manipulate and mold,” said Lokar. “Leaders must be employee-experience focused.”

In the business world, everything is customer focused and geared to earning profits.

Lokar stressed that leaders also must maximize employees’ experience to be successful.

“At the end of the day, when you’re a publicly traded company, your job is to make profit,” Lokar said. “When a shareholder spends a dollar, they expect to get a certain return from that dollar.”

But he warned listeners that getting caught up in profit alone is dangerous.

“There are two other pegs to that stool, the employees and the customers, so you can’t just be about the shareholders,” said Lokar.

The challenge of culture comes into play, he noted.

“It’s easier to define a strategy than it is to execute a strategy,” he said.

At Mitel, Lokar said the defined culture is about people. It is about meeting commitments, holding people accountable and executing strategy.

The last two challenges Lokar discussed with students and faculty were innovation and motivation of teams and people.

Every company has to think about what’s next because echnology is transforming every market around the world, he said.

“You think Elon Musk isn’t thinking about what Volkswagon is doing?” Lokar asked. “He has to constantly be thinking about what’s next for electric cars.”

His piece on innovation was quick, and he moved on to mobilizing and motivating teams as he became pressed for time.

“As a leader, you’ll always have to connect with peers and direct reports,” he said. “But probably the toughest motivational sale to make is with your colleagues.”

At Mitel, executives get together each month and discuss how to improve the company and its employee culture.

“At every one of those meetings, I’m selling an idea about the needs we have around recruiting, managing people, compensation gaps…,” said Lokar. “I have to be able to motivate executives on how my agenda will help their agenda.”

Motivating his colleagues to believe in what he is doing has been one of the toughest tasks for him as a leader, he said.

Lokar advised students on  how to tackle leadership challenges.

His first bit of advice centered around three things young leaders should do early in their careers:

“Go global, go early.”

He believes if young people can get international experience and get outside of the Americas for a short period of time early in their careers, they will have an advantage over most candidates when applying for jobs.

“Lead early, lead often.”

Lokar encourages students to take advantage of every management opportunity or chance to be in charge of people.

“You will never be finished as a leader, and there is no such thing as the perfect leader,” he said.

Be open and opportunistic.”

Pursue things that may not perfectly fit a desired career path but still pique interest.

“Listen to your gut,” he said. “Sometimes it’s that opportunistic thing that doesn’t seem like it fits that leads you to the thing that you’re most passionate about.”

Lokar said that people who have many different experiences are valuable to companies because they come to know the whole business.

He closed his hour-long talk with a final list of leadership sensibilities that stem from common challenges in leadership.

He began with the importance of collaboration.

“You can’t work solo. It’s too hard,” he said.

Lokar also encouraged students to be curious and constantly take in information.

He called it “life learning.”

Lastly, make an impact socially and environmentally, he urged.

“Ask yourself, ‘What does this company do besides making widgets and making money?’ ” Lokar said. “As leaders, we are becoming more and more in tuned to this need to affect society and the communities around us.”