Skoog Fordham in action

Walter “Skoog” Fordham

You can never overestimate the power of books to help you find your calling.

Books helped Walter “Skoog” Fordham find the work he loves.

Diversity is his passion. His niche is an unusual one. He facilitates diversity training, team building, groups, and employee relations interventions for nonprofits. Some highlights of his work in diversity training have taken him far from his home in Fayetteville, Georgia. They include work in Gaza Strip and West Bank; in Sri Lanka where training participants discussed ethnic tensions between Tamils and Singhalese, and in Ethiopia.

One  of Skoog’s favorite things about his work is seeing when people who are part of a dominant culture or group make a breakthrough. It could be men or a dominant ethnic or religious group. “I love seeing the light  bulb go off ,” he says, when it hits them that they have certain privileges that they were not aware of.

They begin to realize that they’re not discriminating intentionally, but that they were doing things that “got in the way” of equality. “When I see that there’s a breakthrough and they’re thinking about it in a different way,” says Skoog, “I love that.” Sometimes training attendees even tell him: “This is going to change my life.” It doesn’t just change how they work, he says, it even changes how they value people.

Skoog wasn’t one of those people who knew exactly what he wanted to do from the start. His is a story that unfolds bit by bit. His journey sheds light on forces innovators rely on to help them find their way.

After serving as a missionary teaching English in South Korea, Skoog, who was an econ major in college, realized that he loved working with people. After getting an MBA, he started out as a human resources generalist in a leadership program at GE, where he facilitated meetings on topics like affirmative action, negotiations, and the American Disability Act.

While he credits GE with giving him a great foundation, work wasn’t always enjoyable. Rounds of restructuring took a toll on him. He was the unlucky HR generalist responsible for deciding who would leave and whose jobs to cut. “I was not enjoying it,” he recalled recently. “I felt like I was put on earth for something more.”

At around the same time, a new supervisor arrived from a stint in the Peace Corps. Skoog was reminded of how thrilling he found missionary work abroad and how he wanted to get back into humanitarian work. He peppered the new boss with more questions about his Peace Corps work than his GE work. Around this time, he read The Path by Laurie Beth Jones. The book was about aligning your personal mission to your organization’s mission.

Skoog knew that he wanted to do something truly of service to others. But GE’s focus was the bottomline and keeping stockholders happy. Reading The Path made him think it was time to do something else. Ultimately, he suggested his own job be cut. GE suggested he take a paid sabbatical for a few months, which he did. But ultimately, he left GE without another position lined up.

It was time to get back to some kind of humanitarian work. He started researching nonprofit work options. During an information interview with a senior vice president of HR at CARE who had made the jump from the private sector to the nonprofit sector, they hit it off. CARE had recently relocated from New York to Atlanta. By the end of the interview, he had a position with Care as an HR generalist for East Africa, one of several roles he held there.

At one point, CARE brought in a consultant to help design a diversity training program. While she was a good designer and the meat of the program was solid, Skoog felt the training could be a lot more fun and interactive. He volunteered to work with the consultant on facilitating training. The diversity training became one of the best-rated training classes at CARE.

When partnering with other nongovernmental organizations, Skoog found that others were thrilled to learn about the kind of work CARE was doing. Their diversity training was leading edge.  They treated diversity as a part of leadership and programming in the development world. “We could clearly see there was a niche that no one was filling,” he said.

Skoog got permission from CARE to offer the training outside the organization as a consultant. Sometime after, his supervisor passed away and another person he looked up to, the SVP who hired him, left CARE. Along the way, Skoog read The Dream Giver by Bruce Wilkinson. The book asked whether he was getting stale and whether he was ready to go to the next level in fulfilling his God-given dream. That’s when he decided to take a break from CARE to grieve the loss of people he had worked with and see what else was out there.

He prayed and talked with spiritual influencers. It felt like it was time to do something else. And he started getting calls from other former CARE staff who wanted him to facilitate training for their organizations. After he left CARE, the nonprofit also asked him to come back as a consultant. “Then it kind of took off,” Skoog recalls. All by word of mouth.

Skoog’s mother these days likes to remind him to be careful about what he reads, because when he reads something, he makes life-changing decisions.

Skoog has been working as an entrepreneur for about nine years. He’s at the point where he knows that if he proactively advertised his work, demand would surpass his ability to keep up with it. He has been mulling over what it will take to go to the next level. He has been mentoring potential partners and collaborated with other specialists. And while he has loved all the travel in the past, now he’d like to stick closer to home, so he can spend more time with family, especially his year-old twins.

Skoog has always been surrounded by clergy. A brother and brother-in-law are ministers, and his father-in-law and and grandfather also were ministers. People ask Skoog why he’s not in the clergy. But he says he is. It’s just a different calling. “I believe my work is a type of ministry,” he said, “for bringing people together and opening a safe place to talk and share.”

Tips from Skoog

  • Before you fully jump into something, you need to do it on some level just to see if it’s something you really want to do. The grass is always greener on the other side. If you can volunteer a few hours a week, you might discover aspects you don’t like and change directions.
  • If you’re looking to becoming an entrepreneur, follow your dreams. Give it a shot. Skoog remembers an economics professor who advised, “When you’re young, do anything, go anywhere, try it.” When you get older, things will tie you down. “So right now, go for it. Don’t think about the money. Don’t think about advancement. Just get experience. Try it.”