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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: