Commencement Speaker: Carol Tomé Finds Success by Looking Outward
His words have faded with time, but Carol Tomé (MBA ’81) can still see the man who spoke at her high school graduation in small-town Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“He was like a father figure but very statesmanlike and very impressive,” Tomé recalls. “I was very taken by his presence.”
The daughter of a community banker went on to pursue her bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Wyoming. But when the time came to pursue a graduate degree in finance, she remembered that graduation address and the speaker who delivered it, the University of Denver’s 13th chancellor, Maurice Mitchell.
More than 40 years later, now a DU alumna, Tomé will return the favor. Home Depot’s chief financial officer and executive vice president of corporate services will give her first commencement address to DU’s graduate students June 8.
“Literally, when I was asked, my jaw dropped open,” Tomé says. “[It was] the farthest thing from my mind. I never ever envisioned it would happen. I’m incredibly honored.”
Honors have seemingly come easy in Tomé’s 23-year rise to the top at the store she spontaneously popped into in 1992. That same day, she invested her money. A few years later, given a job opportunity, she chose to invest her time.
The returns have been tremendous. Twice, Forbes magazine has recognized her as one of the most powerful women in business. The Wall Street Journal ranked her second on its list of the best chief financial officers. Home Depot is the largest home improvement retailer in the world.
These days, however, Tomé measures her success differently.
“It is all about the impact that I’ve had on others,” she says, “the ability to grow an amazing team, to watch people take on roles that they never thought they would have.”
Certainly, Tomé never thought she would be in her current position. Her plan was to work in her father’s bank upon graduation, until he phoned to say he was divorcing his wife of 27 years and selling the bank.
In retrospect, Tomé has said, that phone call was one of the “best thing[s] that could have happened.” Since then, she has learned to embrace every unexpected twist, turn and bump along her career path.
“Everyone needs to build up their own sense of self-confidence so they don’t have that fear [of failure],” she says, “because what’s the worst that could happen? You get fired. OK, go get another job. Just don’t worry about it so much. Because if you have fear of failing, you miss out on incredible opportunities.”
Staying rooted in reality and living with purpose figure to be central themes in Tomé’s upcoming speech. Her plan is to “be bold, be brief and be gone,” she says with a laugh. With luck, she adds, it won’t feel like the longest 10 minutes of her audience’s life.
Most of her public speaking experience, she concedes, falls on the ears of businesspeople. But her life experience, and her time interacting with store managers, she says, have equipped her to address a broader audience.
“It’s all about learning that your message is not about you,” she says. “It’s not: ‘what do you want to say?’ [It’s,] ‘what do they want to hear?’ And I hope they repeat a few things.”