Heinz Company executive motivates Livingstone College students

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 1, 2012

By Laurie D. Willis
Livingstone College News Service
In a frank discussion with about 300 Livingstone College students on Feb. 17, an executive for H. J. Heinz Co. stressed the importance of education, relationship building and setting goals.
And Dr. Tony Byers also told the students assembled in Tubman Little Theater to find their passion and remain committed to it.
Byers, group leader in Heinz’s global diversity and inclusion division, spoke at Livingstone College as part of the institution’s ongoing Black History Month celebration. His candid remarks were well-received by students, perhaps because he spoke to them, not at them, and allowed ample time for their questions.
Byers began his remarks by identifying with the students, saying he was a first-generation college student like many of them. He also acknowledged mistakenly waiting until his senior year in high school to get serious about academics and his future.
“I didn’t realize college recruiters look at all four years of your work,” Byers said. “But that’s one of the challenges of being a first-generation college student. It wasn’t about capability at that point. It was about being lazy.”
Byers recalled a meeting with his academic advisor on the first day of classes his senior year. When he told her he wanted to be a commercial airline pilot she told him “no way” because of his grades and offered him an airline mechanic pamphlet instead.
Undaunted, Byers decided he was going to be successful and got serious about his grades.
“You have to make a decision about the direction in life you’re going to take,” Byers said. “Your attitude will determine your altitude. I worked hard through college but still had to get my attitude right. I still had to overcome laziness so I could keep up with my peers.”
Byers earned a dual bachelor’s degree in training and adult learning and business management from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn. He has a master’s degree in organizational systems and a doctorate in human and organizational development, both from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. There, Byers researched the effectiveness of building support for diversity programs among senior leaders.
H.J. Heinz Co. is one of the world’s leading food marketers and producers.
At Heinz, Byers uses diversity as a marketing strategy and helps the Fortune 500 company build a workforce that mirrors U.S. demographics. He has held various leadership roles within large multinational organizations and has also been a diversity management and organization consultant for numerous companies.
Byers has taught diversity management, organizational change and business development as an adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University, the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management’s Executive MBA Program and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Livingstone College’s Varick Auditorium seats just over 1,100, but on Feb. 17 Byers spoke in Tubman Little Theater, which seats around 300 and is far more intimate. His presentation was conversational and engaging, and the students easily related to him.
“I thought Dr. Byers was very passionate about what he was saying to us,” Livingstone senior Richard B. Lewis said in an interview. “I felt as if he took it from corporate to intimate. He put himself in our shoes, and the audience’s perception of him was he was like a big brother. Clearly Dr. Byers has done well for himself. He works for a major company that’s a household name, but he knew how to relate to college students and come down to our level, and I think that’s why he had a captivated audience.”
Byers asked Lewis, an English major from Trenton, N.J., to join him down front after Lewis asked what he has done for his hometown since becoming successful. After commenting on Lewis’ tie, which Byers liked, he turned the tables and threw several questions at him in succession. Lewis answered each question intelligently, his responses belying his nervousness.
Byers imparted sage advice to the students, touching on everything from the importance of choosing the right friends to being mindful of what they post on Facebook and other social networking sites to being able to speak with proper grammar and good enunciation.
“To make the transition from backpack to brief case you have to do several things,” Byers said. “Number one, you have to find your voice and your passion. You also have to build meaningful relationships and build your professional network. You must understand rewards, and you must also recognize what kind of brand you have. Finally, you need to establish goals.”
Byers urged the students to make every day count at Livingstone.
“You have to start getting ready … now,” Byers said. “Don’t do what I did and wait until you get on the field and say ‘bring it on.’ You must know something, because if you know nothing you get paid nothing. It’s a global world today and you have to be able to see outside of what you know.”
Byers said if given only three words to cite as keys for success they would be performance, perception and exposure.
“In college we reward you for the work that you do, but when you get in the workforce … you’re supposed to work hard,” he said. “In terms of perception, what do you think about yourself and how is that reflected in how you act? Your actions control or impact how we see you. And rising inside an organization is about exposure, but you want the right kind of exposure.”
Byers told the students it’s important to be able to speak eloquently about a subject and urged them to discern when “street lingo” is acceptable.
He drew applause for saying “I had to change my friends” after being asked about avenues he took for success besides furthering his education.
After his session, Byers joined Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr. and other administrators, faculty, staff and students for a private lunch. There he continued sharing wisdom. In fact, before one female student could finish her question, Byers politely told her to give a firm handshake and maintain direct eye contact when speaking to people.
“We were very fortunate to have Dr. Byers come to Livingstone College today to interact with our students,” Jenkins said in an interview. “It’s important for them to know now is the time to dig in and do everything they can to ensure success. I tell them that all of the time, particularly in the class I teach on Wednesdays, but sometimes it registers more if they hear it from someone on the outside. Dr. Byers was a hit with the students, he gave them some solid advice and I look forward to cultivating a good relationship with him and H. J. Heinz Co.”