Turning Passion Into Purpose

Power Suit: Kathleen Wilson-Thompson

A desire to look out for the interests of others led Kathleen Wilson-Thompson to her calling

By Carolyn M. Brown

Kathleen Wilson-Thompson grew up in the 1970s in Saginaw, Michigan, which was a booming General Motors town where Blacks were able to acquire gainful employment, enter the middle class, and provide their children with access to higher education. Her father worked at a GM plant, and she loved tinkering with him because he built things. She fondly recalls the day that her father bought a Rolex watch and the two worked on taking it apart and putting it back together. She even toyed with the idea of moving to Switzerland to become a watchmaker. She now often gets teased by her husband that she should have been an engineer. In fact, Wilson-Thompson holds a patent for a handheld beauty device that uses a process akin to eyebrow threading. She worked on it for 10 years, drawing up the schematics, drafting the mechanics, and mechanizing it.

Mesmerized with building something that would make money, Wilson-Thompson started a business in her youth in which she would harvest and package seeds from the plants in her mother’s garden and sell them in the neighborhood. The junior entrepreneur also wanted to be a writer because of her love for reading.

Wilson-Thompson ended up majoring in English literature at the University of Michigan. Studying under the first US Black poet laureate, Robert Hayden, and participating in anti-apartheid marches calling for corporate divestment from South Africa fostered her sense of justice. She went on to earn a juris doctorate degree as well as a master’s degree in corporate and finance law from Wayne State University.

Today Wilson-Thompson, who is based out of Illinois, serves as executive vice president and global chief human resources officer at Walgreens’s parent company, Walgreens Boots Alliance. Prior to that, she was a senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Walgreens, having joined the company in 2009 after spending 17 years at Kellogg’s as a human resources executive.

She considers being named chair of integration for Walgreens Boots Alliance one of her greatest achievements. In that role, she is tasked with helping to bring together the two iconic brands-evaluating all the roles and setting up all the system’s infrastructure to run a new multinational company.

Wilson-Thompson’s passion as a writer, tinkerer, inventor, and entrepreneur has paid off exponentially throughout her career. Passion is what drives her, but purpose is what guides her.

Diversity Woman spoke with Kathleen Wilson-Thompson about her career growth, the workplace under COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Diversity Woman: What made you shift gears in college to pursue law as a career path?
Kathleen Wilson-Thompson: I zeroed in on law after finishing my degree at Michigan largely because of the experience my mother had. She finished University of Michigan in 1951, but that was prior to the Civil Rights Act. She told us the whole story of applying to be a teacher and being told, “You can teach when we build a school for you people.” So, my mother worked as a butcher. When a school was built for our people, some 10 years later, my mother was able to become a teacher. That really motivated me to become a labor employment lawyer. There was, as there still is today, discrimination in the workplace. I wanted to know what I could do to address it. Frankly, that’s part of why I switched into HR. I enjoy what I do. I think I make a difference for the people in the companies that I’ve served by balancing the interests of the company, our shareholders, our customers, and our patients, and by ensuring policies and processes are meted out fairly. Drive the bottom line, but at the same time take care of people.

DW: Your initial focus was labor and employment, so why did you earn a master’s degree in corporate and finance law?
KWT: To be upwardly mobile. To ensure that I could not be viewed as the African American in HR, but also to be a businessperson who understands finance. To ensure that I was continuing to learn and hone my skills so that I would be able to move throughout the organization by being well versed in business. When I came to Walgreens, I instituted something called OneHR to ensure that we were true to our profession and to try to help the organization understand how HR, human capital, is a basic foundation of any company. You have to drive your strategies through your people.

DW: Have you also looked at how COVID is impacting people who are experiencing trauma?
KWT: That was one of the first things we did. Workers, employees, and team members have access to a mental health-care hotline so they can get assistance. We also offer an app that provides coping tools. We put resources online such as different readings, podcasts, and speakers. I brought in Sanjay Gupta [CNN’s chief medical correspondent] on a virtual meeting for my team and called it Who Helps the Helpers? I’m on a COVID call every other day with the CEO and senior management to talk about the impact of COVID, what we’re doing, our protocols, and what’s happening across the entire globe.

DW: People are also distressed because of the racial injustice that has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. How have you addressed this?
KWT: I wrote an open letter about my personal perspective of what happened to Mr. Floyd and what I think companies need to do. It’s on our corporate web page and has gotten probably 25,000 views so far. As a result, we changed our format for a town hall. I have to give the company credit for allowing me to bring in Dr. Arthur James, a renowned African American speaker. I wanted our employees to understand the impact not only of COVID but also of racism in the health-care space, and how it impacts us as a health-care company. We set up a speakers series called Listen, Learn, and Act. We’ve had listening tours across the company: listening to thousands of people express how they are experiencing our workplace. And we’re taking specific actions now to address what could potentially be perceived as systemic issues based on racism or unconscious bias. We’ve put 57,000 people through unconscious bias training. I have moderated Zoom meetings with our African American employees so they can talk to me personally and professionally about how they are being affected. I wanted to let them know they have a voice, whereas they might not otherwise get to talk to someone in the C-suite.

DW: If you could sit down with your younger self, what advice would you give her?
KWT: To listen more to my mother and internalize. My mother wrote me a letter when I was 22. It’s handwritten. She put it on the dashboard of my Camaro. I still have it. I read it for strength all the time now. At the end, she said, “Just make sure you work as hard at being happy as you do at being successful.” I was raised humbly and with humility. I don’t want it to appear that I’ve made all of these accomplishments by myself. That’s important to me. As well the fact that I do stand on the shoulders of so many folks. My daughter calls it, and you can quote her for me, ‘of the women in my bones.’ I want to give honor to that. DW

Carolyn M. Brown is an award-winning journalist, author, playwright, and the founder of True Colors Project.

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