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Tom Byrnes: Relationships at the Center

Since he joined the Poole College of Management as a senior lecturer in marketing in 2010, Tom Byrnes has earned a reputation for being a friendly, welcoming instructor with a passion for helping his students succeed. Prior to teaching at NC State, he spent 35 years at IBM in technical sales and management roles, experience he now leverages to help a new generation of marketing students navigate a changing industry.

Q&A with Tom Byrnes

What was one of your biggest takeaways from 35 years in industry?

Marketing is all about relationships. Since I moved between teams so often, I gained a bird’s-eye view of the centrality of relationships in operating a successful business. Often in large companies, there’s a disconnect between executive leadership and the clients they’re trying to serve. That’s a problem because successful marketing requires an in-depth understanding of what matters to the people you’re trying to reach. It’s vital to keep up with the ever-changing pulse of client needs.

What responsibilities did you enjoy most at IBM?

During my final decade with the company, I served as a global marketing communications manager. This role propelled me across the globe to visit clients and help companies launch new product lines and initiatives. I really enjoyed experiencing unfamiliar geographies and cultures through that role. It gave me greater insight into authentically representing brands and reaching an intended audience across culture lines.

Tom Byrnes (right) at the annual Krispy Kreme Challenge

What keeps you interested in marketing? 

The field is constantly evolving, so it has a built-in incentive to keep learning new things and meeting new people. While at IBM, I took the time to pursue an MBA and DBA in an effort to grow my skillset and find new ways to serve the people around me. Good leaders are always learning.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I’m deeply invested in helping each and every student learn to the best of their ability, with a particular emphasis on teaching communication in the workplace. In every class, I make it a priority to apply textbook concepts to real-world examples, sharing some of my own “battle stories” from my years in industry.

I’m a dedicated proponent of NC State’s “Think and Do” mission, so I also believe classroom and instructors and mentors who stay current in industry trends are key to helping students break onto the marketing scene. As a practitioner, developing new industry knowledge enabled me to best serve my clients. Similarly, when I actively work to understand new technologies as a lecturer, that opens doors for me to be a better resource for students and young professionals.

Tom Byrnes in Argentina with students studying abroad during the Maymester

What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching at NC State?

 I draw deep satisfaction from having a front-row seat to my students’ success. They’re incredibly capable people who are already doing amazing work. I especially enjoy having conversations with them outside of lecture hours, hearing their stories and getting to know them as whole persons, not just students. It saddens me when I don’t know my students by name. I love being able to stop them in the hallway to ask how they’re doing or let them borrow my favorite books. The instructor-student relationship is really special, and I’m honored to play a part in their academic, professional and personal development.

What advice would you give to students who are pursuing a career in marketing?

Be willing to embrace change. I frequently caution my students against being overly committed to a narrow dream job or career path. Holding your plans loosely and keeping an open mind frees you to benefit from unexpected opportunities when they come, both academically and professionally. Don’t let yourself get stuck in a box. It’s important to keep exploring and developing new passions, especially when you’re an undergraduate student on the cusp of launching your career.

Tom Byrnes (second to left) on a bike trip through the Nappa wine region

How do you spend your time outside of the classroom?

I try to stay active by working out for a couple days every day, whether that’s going to the gym or swimming in the pool at my house. I also particularly enjoy exploring North Carolina’s many preserves, trails and lakes. It’s important to let ourselves take breaks from the rigorous cognitive work that happens behind office walls and computer screens. A significant amount of learning happens when you branch out and experience all that life has to offer. That’s how relationships are formed, and that’s where your next big idea may come from.