Class of 1970 – 50th Reunion: Featuring John and Phyllis Thompson
September 22, 2020
John T. Thompson and Phyllis N. Thompson
John Thompson Economics ’70, MBA ’72
Phyllis Newby Thompson M.S. ’73 Elementary Education
What is your current position?
Phyllis Thompson: Special Education teacher (retired)
John Thompson: Vice Chairman, Global CEO/Directors Practice, Heidrick & Struggles International Inc.
Virginia Tech Alumnus John T. Thompson (Econ ’70, MBA ’72) is one of the nation’s most respected CEO and board advisors. He has completed 385 board placements and 263 CEO searches. He has placed executives like Eric Schmidt at Google and Tim Cook at Apple.
What in your career are you most proud of?
“In my career as an Executive Search Consultant I facilitated the creation of more than 500,000 jobs through the placement of presidents and CEOs at companies such as Adobe, Apple, Autodesk, Dell, Disney, DirectTV, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Salesforce and SAP.”
What is your best Virginia Tech memory?
“Having Phyllis visit campus on weekends.”
– John (married to Phyllis for 50 years)
“As I began working on my master’s degree, I was especially interested in learning disabilities, but also reading. The advanced classes in each area were strictly for students specializing in those areas. But I was so interested I signed up for both areas and just told the reading specialists that I was in reading only. Everything seemed fine until near the end of my program when I received a message from two of my professors that the Dean of the School of Education needed to see me in his office. I was petrified. I knew I had been caught. I was not going to get any professors in trouble because they had each been supportive and helpful, and they did not know the entire story.
“I had a meeting at 4 p.m. with the Dean. We exchanged ‘hellos’ and I sat down. His opening words were, ‘Mrs. Thompson, I get to talk to you about something I seldom get to talk about with a student.’ I know my face must have blushed to a pure red. ‘You are about to finish your master’s degree in education, and if nothing goes wrong, you will be one of the very rare people to complete their master of education with a 4.0!’”
What are highlights of engagement on campus?
"Student Government all four years; Chair Ring Committee (1970); Resident Advisor for three years on 7th floor Lee Hall (now Hoge Hall); arranged for concerts on campus (e.g. Doobie Brothers and The Four Seasons) and to the German Club (e.g. Swinging Medallions and Little Anthony)."
“I entered a master’s of education program because I was teaching sixth grade and there were several students in my class reading at about a second grade level. I knew I needed help in understanding what I was supposed to do for my students. My greatest fortune was the first class I took with Professor Cherry Houck. It was a life changing experience. Not only did I begin to learn how to look at each student’s learning style as unique and critical to their education, but I once again found my passion – learning.”
How has Virginia Tech helped lead your career?
“It helped me to develop the intellectual curiosity needed for learning and understanding organizations and society.”
Advice for current students?
“Your major is not necessarily your career. Everybody struggles about what they want to do. Everyone asks you that – what do you want to do when you grow up? – it’s a tough question, and it’s probably a nonsense question. Most of us don’t know yet.”
What does Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) mean to you?
“Both of us have always wanted to be philanthropic to whatever degree we could. Interestingly, higher education is where we have settled. We support Pamplin Engage because we believe it helps the professor provide a richer experience for the hybrid learning experience. It brings more energy, more ability to reach students through new learning styles. We can think of no better way to support education during these difficult times.”
“We think the value of a college education and a graduate education is immense. It is extraordinarily high leverage use of funding and we are big believers in it. A democracy only works with informed voters.”
"How to Lead" by David Rubenstein, Chairman of The Carlyle Group.
This book is the result of 30 interviews with leaders in various fields; is there an easy template? No! As he says, if it were that easy everyone would be an exceptional leader. I was surprised at the number one ingredient … luck.
"The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World" by Simon Winchester.
From Thomas Jefferson watching guns in France being made with interchangeable parts to Gordon Moore of Moore’s Law where 8 billion transistors are now placed in a smart phone.
"The 100 Year Life; Living and Working in an Age of Longevity" by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott.
Well written, describing shocking changes that will occur in society as people live and work longer.
"Dream Hoarders" by Richard Reeves.
The top 1/5th of our society enjoys ownership of almost 90% of the assets in our country. Reeves focuses on how we can restore a more equitable social order.
"As a lifetime reader, working through many forms of literature, I find it impossible to choose a true favorite. But should I have only one book to read, it would be an Agatha Christie novel, perhaps "The Secret Adversary" or "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.""
“A good idea doesn’t care who has it.”
“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
A great example of this is when Phyllis was named Outstanding Educator in Montgomery County when she was president of the Teacher’s Union and taught at the 600-student Shawsville High School in Shawsville, Virginia, teaching special education students. Her chances of being recognized with this award in the state was essentially zero, so how did she achieve this recognition? She was a master teacher.
“The difference between good and excellent in virtually any profession is getting the details right.”
“Never forget that you are one of a kind.”
“Always remember that you are absolutely unique … just like everyone else.”
– Margaret Mead