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McDonald’s first black CEO Don Thompson on blazing a path for the Black community

He talks about his path to the top.

Allie Nawrat

Fortune 500

Credit: Keith Krach via Flicker.

Unleash Your Curiosity And particularly the sacrifices his wife had to make to support his career.

Black American engineer Don Thompson served as president and CEO of McDonald’s globally between 2012 and 2015, after spending over 20 years working his way up the ranks at the fast-food giant.

He is the company’s first and only Black CEO in its almost 100-year history.

In a recent Harvard Business Review podcast episode, Thompson and his wife Liz spoke to Porter Braswell, who presents the Review’s ‘Race at Work’ podcast and is co-founder and CEO of Jopwell, a career advancement platform for Black, Latinx, and Native American individuals.

Thompson advises that people should never turn down opportunities when they come their way because “you never know where opportunities will come from”, and said that taking the job at the fast-food giant “changed my life”.

His route to the top was unconventional and came with the support of senior Black directors already at McDonald’s.

When one of the two African American directors in the company approached him and applauded him for his work, Thompson said he actually considered leaving McDonald’s. This is because he felt like there were no further opportunities for his career to progress in engineering at the corporation.

But the director pushed him – and sponsored him – to join an accelerator development program in operations, which is where the vast majority of senior management start their careers.

The new role meant Thompson had to work in McDonald’s restaurants and learn how the company worked across the US. As it involved so much traveling, the change in job pushed Thompson and his wife to consider how they were going to raise their two children.

Liz Thompson is very clear that they come as a unit and when she saw the trajectory of what his career could be at McDonald’s, they made the decision that the best thing to do for their whole family was for her to “double down” on the family side, while continuing to work at Montessori schools.

Thompson is clear that his wife made a sacrifice, but what she did “wasn’t a step back, it was a step to the side in her career”, but “it allowed me to be able to put in the additional hours and travel and focus on my career”.

It seems it really is true that behind every great man is an even better woman enabling him to succeed.

Liz Thompson is very clear that she would make the decision all over again because it was the right thing to do for their children. However, she acknowledges this approach is not right for everyone, and people must do what is best for them and their families.

Over the next few years, Thompson’s career at McDonald’s naturally progressed towards senior management and in 2006 he became the president of McDonald’s US and Canada. He then moved into a global role as COO before becoming CEO in 2012.

Thompson says he had not thought much about what it would be like to be the CEO of McDonald’s, but he threw himself into the role not just for his benefit, “but for those who look like us and came up like us”.

The Thompsons have always felt obligated to represent and give back to their community, which is why they now do a lot of philanthropic work to support Black people to get ahead (and back themselves) in the world of education and work.

Thompson faced some challenges in being a black CEO. This is not surprising given we are still a long way from having gender-equal or ethnically diverse boards.

In fact, research by Deloitte shows that six of the Fortune 500 still have all white male boards and Fortune 500 boards won’t be sufficiently diverse until 2074.

Thompson shared an anecdote about when he would go into meetings all around the world and people would look at him incredulously.

He said it felt like they were questioning his status as the CEO of McDonald’s, but Thompson handled the situation by shaking their hands, smiling, and saying ‘How are you? It’s nice to meet you.’

He is clear that everyone should go into any room with confidence and that he didn’t “want to be held back by what someone else was thinking about me”.

In fact, it seems that being the only Black person, woman or LGBTQ+ individual in a room can be a superpower – this is because diversity, particularly at the top, brings different and new ways of thinking and tackling problems.

Therefore, it is high time that companies and HR teams, in particular, move beyond the buzzwords of diversity – whether they are talking about ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, or disabled people – and find ways to empower people to be confident in being their true selves in and out of the workplace.

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