From Air Force to Western Union, John “David” Thompson leads with an emphasis on risks and rewards.
By Rachelle Nones
If John “David” Thompson, Executive Vice President and CIO of Western Union, could choose an alternate career, he would love to work with planes and the students learning to fly them. Surprising? Not really. Thompson’s IT career began in the U.S. Air Force, and he is as passionate about flying planes as he is about working with business leaders to solve problems. Besides, an airplane in flight is a spot-on metaphor for Thompson’s “high-risk, high-reward” propensity for prodding his team members to soar higher by stepping outside of their individual comfort zones.
Blueprint for Success
Every working day, Thompson rises early; “But not as early as when I was in the military,” he said. He kicks off each day with breakfast and a round of playtime with his dogs. Within the first 15 minutes of his arrival at the office, Thompson completes purchase order and travel approvals with military-like precision. When his desk is cleared, he uses the early morning “window of opportunity” to check in and chat with team members.
“If you were in the room,” he said, “you’d hear me asking ‘How can we accelerate? How can we do things faster and be more agile?’”
During his scheduled 30-minute lunch break, Thompson enjoys a quick salad or sandwich while paging through trade journals, Businessweek, the Harvard Business Review and other magazines.
Throughout the day Thompson also attends one-on-one meetings with direct reports, suppliers and business users. Days vary, but the singular thread woven throughout all of them is the satisfaction Thompson receives from using technology to solve business problems.
“It is a big driver in my career,” he said.
Constructing Corporate Culture
To achieve his goals, Thompson seeks out employees who are “capable and willing to be empowered.” He hires team members who are truly skilled in their craft, then finds ways to enable them to their fullest extent. In his executive role, Thompson clears roadblocks, sets objectives, defines priorities and holds team members accountable for meeting objectives so they can realize their potential and “shine.”
“Comfort sometimes becomes complacent.”
As a leader, Thompson pushes his employees to take measured risks. “Comfort sometimes becomes complacent,” he said. “Some of the most creative things come from people who are a bit uneasy and have been pushed to think outside the box.”
On diversity in the workplace: “Diversity in culture, diversity in life perspective, diversity in gender—brings different perspectives to a problem,” Thompson said. “You have to nurture diversity, or you will end up with segregated groups.”
Thompson is an enthusiastic supporter of the Anita Borg Institute, an organization devoted to increasing the presence of women in technological fields. “As a leader, what I’ve found out about the Anita Borg Institute is their intense investment in the development of women in the sciences and technology. I think it is important for me to help organizations like that. It is a great institution that has helped develop scientists and technologists through investments, university outreach and mentoring programs.”
Boosting the Bottom Line
On his watch, amongst many new projects, Thompson is leading the integration of Western Union’s prepaid card program in various countries to provide a secure vehicle for transferring funds and conducting online transactions on a global level.
“Many of the people who are receiving the funds from our senders want to be able to go to Amazon or Overstock and buy something—but try to put cash into your computer,” Thompson explained. “Enabling someone who has been underserved by a bank and allowing them access to services that allow them to take advantage of global commerce: We call that using technology, in many cases, for good.”
One of Thompson’s most memorable business meetings occurred when a new board member asked him to discuss his business failures. “People learn from their mistakes,” the board member said, “and people who have never made a mistake have never learned anything.”
Reflecting on past mistakes, Thompson recalls underestimating the disruptive impact of large programs of new technology when it is introduced without proper preparation and training. What Thompson learned was major: “You could do a great job as a technology leader, but if you don’t coordinate effectively with the business function or help prioritize change management then you will fail.”
Thompson strives to maintain a balance between work and his personal life, but acknowledged, “it has gotten harder.”
According to Thompson, the number of cycles that a technology leader puts into enabling the business has grown. “It is taking more cycles. I used to think it was because I was getting older and not as efficient, but when I look at my workload and the volume—IT has become a very strategic tool for many businesses.”
To decompress, Thompson works out, strolls through the local park, watches news reports and settles in for a good read before turning in for the night.
“You have to take the opportunity to take time for yourself, to take time for your family,” Thompson said, “but also to understand that you have a huge responsibility to your constituents, your customer or your business partner to help deliver technology.”
Rachelle Nones is a freelance writer based in New York City, New York.