We’ve all heard the expression “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’,” but the casino gaming industry is hard-pressed to find someone who personifies that expression more than Heather Thomas. In all of the milestones of her long and illustrious career, there is one common theme to be noticed: she prioritizes helping others.
When asked about her successes, Thomas highlights the achievements of her employees. When prompted to reflect on her accomplishments, she details the personal and professional growth of those she has mentored. What’s with this woman? Is she just a master at avoiding the spotlight, or is there something more strategic and deliberate to her approach at discussing success?
If you guessed the latter, you’re right. For there’s a phenomenon that has occurred throughout Thomas’ career, a well-known strategy that every great manager implements. Take care of your team, and you take care of yourself.
The very name of her specialty, “safety and loss control,” speaks volumes to the importance of people and the part they play in making or breaking a company. For instance, Thomas has been in the longstanding habit of encouraging and assisting her direct reports in their own career advancement, to the degree that a staggering 100 percent of them have been promoted within the San Manuel organization. And really, it’s Psych 101. Employees who feel heard, appreciated, and utilized for their skill sets are employees who will work harder and display more loyalty to their employer. An organization that encourages its employees to advance, even if it’s not within their current department, is a special place indeed.
Thomas touches on this in her overview of working for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians (SMBMI) and Yaamava’ Resort & Casino. The culture here ensures that all team members are aware of the part they play in not only contributing to the success of the tribe, but to the legacy of a family. It’s a philanthropy that extends far beyond the walls of the casino, seeping into and positively impacting the very region itself. It comes in the form of tuition reimbursement, partnerships with local universities, internal training, membership, and community involvement and volunteering.
SMBMI’s culture has also inspired leaders like Thomas to teach and innovate using out-of-the-box methods. For instance, one of the greatest accomplishments of her career occurred in 2018 when she decided to forgo the standard talking heads safety training method, replacing this method instead with an assignment for her employees to create a safety-themed escape room.
Throughout the organization, departments broke into teams and each team was tasked to solve, under a time limit, a series of puzzles focused on safety, training, and emergency preparedness. The exercise invigorated the participants, imbuing them with the benefits that come from healthy competition. Thomas’ exercise garnered the attention of not only the C-suite executives of the organization, but of safety partners from other industries as well, giving her team the opportunity to present their designs, as well as exposure to executives of all ranks. The exercise was such a tremendous success that they repeated it the following year with an even larger number of participants and executives buying in.
The teamwork that resulted from this kind of corporate camaraderie was more essential than anyone could have predicted as Covid-19 swept over the world shortly thereafter, shining an unprecedented limelight on the arenas of enterprise risk management, occupational safety, public health, and emergency management. These fields boomed with opportunity as a result of the pandemic, permanently shifting industry perspectives and creating career opportunities ranging from entry-level positions to executive leadership.
And now as we all navigate these waters of adjustment and adaption, Thomas holds true to her mantra in molding rising leaders. “Get involved!” she advises, encouraging young professionals to build networks within their organization and throughout the gaming industry.
“Volunteer at one of the many community outreach opportunities available, participate in training, and join groups and committees whenever the opportunity presents itself,” she urges.
Thomas’ passion for mitigating risk continues to be affirmed through her networking efforts, and through the chances she gets to work alongside great leaders. All of these combined experiences help her better understand how to support her organization. And she continues to advise onboarding team members.
“There are so many amazing people working a vast array of careers,” she says. “You never know where you might find your passion.”