Norman Tom, who recently retired after a career at the College of Chemistry spanning several decades , doesn’t think of himself as an innovator; he modestly says he “just gets stuff done.” But his persistence and passion helped create valuable new professional development opportunities for staff. He’s a good example of how one person can quietly make a big difference.
Norman began working part-time in the Chemistry carpentry shop while he was still a Cal student majoring in systemic biology. He continued working at the College after graduation because he was in the middle of a big project—building 24 stainless steel chemical fume hoods from scratch—and was eventually hired into an entry-level staff position. He remembers those early years as quite challenging, in a work environment that some might consider to be abusive to staff. Norman says his Asian cultural background helped him through: “You overcome adversity and prove yourself by over-achieving.” He cites the Confucian principles of self-determination and persistence. He was always looking for new skills to learn, from welding to computer networking to project management. By applying the new skills he acquired to challenges that arose in the workplace, he was able to take on more responsibility and advance in his career.
With his focus on skill-building and problem-solving, Norman rose through the ranks, eventually becoming an R&D Engineering Manager with responsibility for all of the Chemistry R&D shops, with as many as 34 employees reporting to him. At the same time, he was rising through the ranks of martial artists, having begun his training at the age of 10. Eventually he became a teacher of martial arts teachers. Norman finds many of the lessons of martial arts applicable to the workplace: “You need to let go and center yourself, get focused. In kung fu, you suffer to get strong—and then you help others find their own inner strengths.”
Norman didn’t want other staff to suffer some of the indignities that he had, or to feel like they were victims—he wanted to empower his co-workers. He joined the Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Committee (where he served a term as Chair) because he wanted to help give staff a voice. While on CSAC, he brought up the issue of faculty-staff relations with Liz Elliott, then director of the Center for Organizational & Workplace Effectiveness, who mentioned that a pilot training on “Influence Without Authority” was under consideration.
Norman describes what happened next as “pestering.” He circled back to Liz repeatedly to inquire about the possible training and volunteered himself and his colleagues to help pilot test. He brought up the topic with the campus-wide shop safety committee—then went back to Liz and her colleagues and let them know that there was widespread need and interest. Slowly, very slowly, the project progressed. As a vendor was selected to offer a training on “Exercising Influence,” Norman stayed involved, providing input on how to tailor the contents to a campus audience. He helped recruit pilot participants, drawing both from his network of shop folks and the broader campus community he had met through CSAC.
The early pilot trainings were well received by shop, facilities, and EH&S staff eager to apply the skills in the workplace. UCOP’s Office of Risk Management learned of this success in managing risk through staff empowerment and invited Norman to present at the annual system-wide risk management conference. The following year, Norman along with shop, EH&S, CSS, and HR staff gave a panel presentation which generated much interest and inquiries among attendees from other campuses.
Eventually the UC Office of the President heard about the Exercising Influence training being offered at Berkeley, and decided to integrate it as a module in the system-wide Management Development Program. Norman participated in the training-the-trainers sessions. So what started at Berkeley and helped along by a little “pestering” from Norman is now a professional development opportunity available to staff on ten UC campuses!
The story of how Norman advocated on behalf of this training is a demonstration of “exercising influence” in action. As he says, “To have a big impact from almost imperceptible actions is a kung fu ideal. And you have to keep trying, no matter what. One way to translate ‘kung fu’ is ‘hard work.’ You’ll be so happy when you see the results!”
Norman never sought out the limelight or attention to himself, but he was always happy to talk about projects he was working on, always looking for ways to move them forward. He cared deeply about the mission of the university and the people who work here. His retirement is well-deserved, but he will be missed on campus!