Here's Microsoft Chairman John Thompson's advice for MBA students

Assimilate. Own your errors. Presentation matters. Stay humble.

By Kara Baskin  |  March 8, 2018

John Thompson

Microsoft Chairman John Thompson at a March 7 campus talk.

Why It Matters

John Thompson has led Microsoft, IBM, and Symantec. Here’s the guidance that lit his way.

In more than four decades at tech’s biggest companies, Microsoft Chairman John Thompson has encountered phenomenal success and faced a few disasters.

He spent 28 years at IBM, rising to lead IBM Americas. He took a risk, leaving IBM at the dawn of the Internet age in 1999 to become CEO of Symantec, presiding over the ascendance of Norton AntiVirus software.

Now he invests in early-stage companies and education initiatives. A 1983 MIT Sloan Fellows graduate, he visited campus March 7 for an iLead talk, explaining how to blend humanity with power. And how it helped avert those disasters.

Here’s his advice:

Assimilate. Thompson began his career at IBM in the 1970s, working as a sales rep. At the outset, he wore a polyester suit and “refused to wear a blue suit and a white shirt.”

Eventually, he modified his wardrobe to embrace the culture. The lesson transcends fashion: A key part of strong leadership is to absorb a company’s culture by setting aside ego and truly listening.

“If you go into a new job, you should spend 90 to 100 days listening — not espousing,” Thompson said.

“That ability to assimilate will influence your thinking and strategy more than anything else,” he said. “The human body was created with two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionately. Leadership is about listening and reacting.”

Own your errors. “As a leader, it’s important to be open and admit when you’re wrong and made a mistake. People on your team, or customers, are far more respectful of that,” he said.

When Thompson worked at IBM, there was a problem with their mainframe computers. All IBM customers were affected, including retail giant Walmart. Thompson traveled from New York to the company’s Arkansas headquarters to meet with founder Sam Walton.

“I walked in, and I said, ‘Hi. I’m John Thompson.’ He said, ‘I know who you are. I don’t want to talk about the problems. I appreciate the fact that you even came, so let’s talk about something else,’” he recalled.

They ended up swapping notes on hunting, not business.

Presentation matters. When Thompson became chairman at Microsoft in 2014, it was a “company with resources and credibility, but it had lost its way,” he said, noting that some considered the culture toxic. The board wanted to transform that perception when searching for a new leader. They did that by hiring new CEO Satya Nadella.

“If he has a strong opinion counter to yours, you will hear it — but hear it in a way that’s not in your face and offensive,” Thompson said. “It’s one of the most pleasant business experiences I’ve had. He’s a deep technologist who had the right leadership attitude around sincerity.”

Stay humble. During a question-and-answer session, students asked for leadership advice after graduation.

“Humility,” Thompson replied. “One of the things you get to observe in Silicon Valley is the hubris that comes from the great entrepreneur leader. That hubris often creates powerful companies, but ultimately long-term success is about balance.”

Reciprocity is as essential as ambition, he said.

“People only want to connect with people willing to connect with them. If you don’t have the right attitude, I’m moving on,” he said.