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sales Legend

Microsoft’s John Thompson

John Thompson’s surprising rise from stereo salesman to chairman of the world’s most valuable company

This is an excerpt from our “Legends” series, where we profile the top sales and marketing leaders around the world, digging deep into their formative experiences and lived lessons.

John Thompson didn’t know a thing about mainframe computers when he landed an interview with an IBM recruiter during his senior year at Florida A&M in the early 1970s. But he knew stereo systems—he had a sales job at a local hi-fi shop. “I’m looking to buy a stereo system,” the recruiter asked. “Can you help?”

Thompson spent most of the meeting answering stereo questions and talking up a particular Marantz model he sold at his store. He didn’t close a sale that day, but he did hear the magic words: “You ought to come work for IBM.”

The meeting launched a history-making career. Thompson would spend the next 28 years at IBM working his way up the ranks—from junior sales trainee in Tampa, Florida, in the 1970s to general manager of IBM Americas in 1999, when he was responsible for about 45% of IBM’s revenues and approximately 65% of its profits.

More impressive, perhaps, he became one of the first Black executives to ascend to the top in a starch-white tech industry, where even today, the percentage of Black workers in the sector is stuck in the low single digits.

But he didn’t stop there. After IBM, Thompson moved on to security software giant Symantec, where he had a spectacular 10-year run as CEO, raising the company’s revenue 10x. Then, in 2014, he succeeded Bill Gates as chairman of Microsoft, which reclaimed its position as the most valuable company in the world on his watch. Since 2018, Thompson has been a partner at Lightspeed Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

What I share with all of my young mentees is that success is about focus… You have to decide what it is you want to do, not what you want to be.”

Here are a few moments that have defined Thompson’s career and character:

  • The drive it took to get from stereo salesman to the C-suite comes from an instinct Thompson picked up as a kid growing up during a period of civil rights upheaval and desegregation. Sales wasn’t a career path Thompson was socialized for. It was more of a way a Black kid from West Palm Beach could maneuver in an uncertain world.
  • Thompson challenged himself constantly over the years to acquire new skills and seek higher-level roles. During his 28 years at Big Blue, he estimates he held more than 25 titles. “I was always on the move to something that was more interesting or more challenging,” he says.
  • Rising through the ranks, Thompson honed the traits that allowed him to be a top sales executive. “Leaders have to listen and also be candid and open with their teams,” he says. Leading successfully requires “not avoiding topics employees or customers or partners want to talk about,” he says, even when those topics are uncomfortable. It’s the ability to engage on these issues that establishes true leaders both in their organizations and in the marketplace, he says.
  • Today, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months—as well as the scarcity of workers of color with STEM and digital skills or interests—has left the technology veteran feeling the responsibility to do more to mentor young Black entrepreneurs.
    “Given where the country is now and where I am in my career, I need to open the aperture a little bit more, spend more time with young leaders of color who might benefit from some of the experiences that I’ve had,” he says.

Download the full interview