UPS CEO Carol Tomé on women’s leadership

Carol Tomé, the CEO of UPS, is one of under 40 women leading a Fortune 500 company. While speaking at Tech, she emphasized the value of listening to your communities. // Photo courtesy of bizjournals.com

On Mar. 4, Carol Tomé of United Parcel Service (UPS) engaged in a virtual discussion about women in leadership roles with Maryam Alavi, Dean of the Scheller College of Business.

Tomé became the first woman CEO of UPS in June of last year, having served as a board member since 2003.

As of 2020, she is one of 37 female Fortune 500 CEOs in the world, making her position rare and inspiring.

Before becoming CEO, Tomé had retired from her position within UPS and was spending time on her 550-acre farm.

According to Tomé, this new role was not something she was looking for or expecting, but she was offered the role because of her long history with the company and their shared values.

“I thought it would be a good fit,” Tomé said. “The stock price had been flat for six years and I thought I could get in there and make some money. I really like to make money and I really like to create value.”

When describing her leadership approach and philosophy, Tomé praised above all else the inverted management pyramid.

In this system, leaders are at the bottom and bear the weight of the company so that they can empower their employees to serve customers better.

Tomé emphasized the power of servant leadership and of working on the frontlines rather than sitting at the top of the corporate ladder removed from the company base.

Among her main inspirations are Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, co-founders of The Home Depot.

She commended their insistence on being value-based leaders — on applying values important to our culture to their business goals. Tomé spoke specifically about her vision for the role of business in current environmental issues.

“I think the purpose of the corporation is to tend to the needs of all of its stakeholders,” Tomé said. “At UPS, we are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. We want to give back to our communities and are proud to be a first responder. We believe we need a healthier planet. Our drivers drive over two billion miles a year, but despite and because of this we have invested in driving down our carbon consumption. We are investing in carbon neutral activities, especially in electric vehicles. We were also the first to be authorized by the FAA to have a drone aircraft.”

On the value of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, Tomé stressed its simple advantages for a healthier business.

“If we look like the customers we serve, it’s good for business,” Tomé said. “It’s also just the right thing to do. The George Floyd killing this past summer happened as I was onboarded as CEO. I was ashamed and mad and I wanted to turn my anger into action through living values. There’s no place for racism or bigotry at UPS. DEI should be a strategic imperative for our company. We in fact named a DEI executive who reports to me.”

Tomé highlighted the importance of listening to the whole UPS community, even as a company with 540,000 employees. Although unable to meet every person, she insists on holding meetings with workers further down the corporate ladder. In doing this, she can listen to what her employees are worried and excited about, which is especially important to learn as a new leader.

Crucially, UPS is heavily involved in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Most people don’t realize this, but we’ve been in the healthcare logistics business for 15 years,” Tomé said. “We’re an expert in cold-chain logistics and, in the last decade, have handled vaccines for smallpox and influenza. We got ahead of the COVID vaccine. We have freezer farms in Louisville and in the Netherlands. We invested in the manufacturing of dry-ice because the Pfizer vaccine needs to be frozen. We also reserved capacity in our network so that when the first vaccine was approved we could ship it. It’s incredibly complicated, but it’s exciting.”

Speaking about her vision for the future, Tomé said that the company wants to lean into the experiences that customers want. They recently completed a mission to deliver packages faster than ever before for small and medium-sized companies.

Tomé has plans to expand UPS’s presence in international markets, which she says are underpenetrated.

She also intimated her plans for continuing remote work even as business opens back up. This would reduce commute times for employees and free up office space.

“Our goal is to make sure we’re around for the next 114 years,” Tomé said. “We’ve got to be nimble, agile and think about things in a different way than we have in the past. You should think about us as a technology company as well as a logistics company. We have drones in the sky, autonomous vehicles on the road and robots unloading vehicles. Technology is our secret sauce, I think.”

As the first female CEO of UPS, Tomé shared her advice for emerging female leaders.

“Don’t be too planful,” Tomé said. “You may miss out on an opportunity. I started out as a banker — never did I think I would be the head of a logistics company. But because of my open-mindedness, I’ve worked with some really cool leaders along the way.”

“The second piece of advice is to build your network. Women often find that they’re balancing work and family and aren’t taking time to build out their network. You can do that through activities with your church, with clubs you’re in or with your school. You can create your own personal board of advisors. If I run into a challenge I want advice for, I just go into my network. I’ve been a part of some very cool things and frequently roles that women haven’t historically held.”

About past regrets, Tomé talked about not understanding the importance of surrounding herself with people who were smarter, faster and better than herself. She made a point of the importance of the team rather than the individual. Unique to Tomé are her quirky personal habits that she says contribute her to efficiency as a leader.

After waking up at 4:30 a.m., she has a Diet Coke, works out and then answers all of the emails that came in during the night. She also reads the Bible every day, calling it her daily source of strength.

As a piece of advice for older women in new roles, she told listeners to not try to be anybody else.

“Just be your authentic self,” Tomé said. “Make every day a learning day, especially as an older person. Let younger people teach you about technology and simple solutions.”

“You’re not competing with younger people — you’re learning from them.”