Daring Women: Seattle Chocolate Owner and CEO Jean Thompson Says Leadership Is a ‘Team Sport’

The former Microsoft executive believes leaders are made stronger when good employees are empowered

Jean Thompson was among the original investors in Seattle Chocolate, a confections company launched in 1991 that sells locally made, small-batch chocolate bars and truffles. The former Microsoft communications executive went from being a quiet investor to the owner and chief executive officer of the Tukwila-based company shortly after Seattle Chocolate’s original factory in Pioneer Square was seriously damaged by the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake.

Since then, Thompson has built a thriving women-owned business that stresses quality confections, thoughtful product sourcing and environmental sustainability ― such as compostable truffle wraps made of cellulose. Thompson in 2012 even started a sister confections brand with a social mission, called jcoco ― which has donated some 3.4 million servings of food through its “Chocolate Gives” initiative to food banks in New York, San Francisco and the Seattle area.

As part of the latest Daring Woman interview, Thompson shares some insights about the challenges faced by women striving to achieve leadership roles and ways to overcome them, her views on mentors and networking, and she also shares some advice for the upcoming generation of female leaders.

What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?

Being an open-minded listener is the most important trait of a good leader. You need to surround yourself with people who know their departments or subject better than you, and you want them to be empowered to think and bring their opinions to the table. You want to hear their points of view and be willing to change your mind as new information comes to bear. Leadership is a team sport and a good leader is the coach, not the MVP.

As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?

A lack of confidence or willingness to self-advocate often keeps us from being promoted in organizations. This goes hand in hand with an unwillingness on the part of the people in power to see a woman’s potential and give her the opportunity. As women, we’re too willing to be cooperative and accept “no” for an answer. We need to better understand the power and talent that we bring to our organizations in positions of leadership, to advocate for ourselves for the collective good and to realize that this is not selfish.

Another thing that happens., even when you’re in the position of leadership at a company, is subtle bullying. Women can be sensitive to other people’s opinions and feelings, which is at the core of our potential to be great leaders. Ironically, other people can make us question ourselves, sometimes to get their way or to promote themselves, or maybe because they don’t understand. We want to do the right thing by everyone, and we don’t want to be labeled as emotional or erratic. We’re always trying to prove that we’re as stable as men.

I’ve heard men respond to our reactions with remarks like, “Don’t be irrational or emotional or dramatic." In the interest of proving that stereotype wrong, we back down and immediately question ourselves. These personal attacks on our ability to react “correctly” is a form of bullying. To be the very best leaders we can be, we need to feel and react genuinely and without apology.

How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?

I’ve heard this said before and it sounds so obvious, but it doesn’t always happen: Ask! Ask what gap you need to bridge to be considered for the role, make the objectives specific and then go about making them happen. Check in regularly and make sure your manager agrees that you are on the right track and get a commitment for when you will be considered for the promotion.

What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you?

Ironically, the woman who has done the most mentoring for me used to work for me at both Microsoft and Seattle Chocolate: Kirsty Ellison. She believed in me and pushed me to be more visible to the industry, the consumer and everywhere outside the company. She didn’t sugar coat things. She gently gave feedback when she thought I was in the wrong and pointed out things that she thought were going off track as soon as she sensed them. She showed me what being a true team player looked like, and to put all your effort behind the leader, selflessly. She also taught me to be relentless in the quest for excellence and never settle for less. If we don’t love it, we don’t do it.

What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?

Band together and support each other every chance you get. I have a group of millennials in my office and they treat each other differently than the typical group of women from my generation did. They build each other up, they compliment each other’s ideas and they genuinely take pride and joy in each other’s victories. My advice would be to keep on keeping on! There are many seats at the table and room for all of us. We don’t need to compete. Work together to raise the profile and success of the entire group.

How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?

This is not my strong suit and the mere labeling of an event as a networking event makes me want to run in the opposite direction. However, collaborating and building off other people’s products, ideas, market niches or consumers is rocket fuel to an organization. I get out of the office whenever I can to attend conferences and join industry or professional organizations to expand my contacts. Talking to people and hearing what they’re working on will inevitably lead to something synergistic. Then follow through and do what you said you were going to do. In time, your network will be large and healthy.

What would you do differently in your career?

I would take a course in accounting right off the bat to understand the importance of the financial variables on the health of your business. My liberal arts college didn’t offer a course in accounting, but I would've had a smoother ride if I had taken a course during those early years at Seattle Chocolate.

Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon?

On a perfect Saturday, somewhere outside: riding my e-bike, hiking or walking our dog with my husband, Alberto.

What would be the title of your autobiography?

“Do the Right Thing.”

We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. 

Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.

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