Learning Curves and Journeys

Agile and focused, Kathleen Wilson-Thompson steps into her new position on the board of Tesla.
By Daniel P. Smith


Read time: 5 minutes

Soon after being appointed to the board of Tesla last December, Kathleen Wilson-Thompson, ’79, visited the company’s headquarters to participate in the Women at Tesla Business Resource Group Forum.

An audience member asked Wilson-Thompson, the global chief human resources officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), for thoughts about balancing one’s personal life while ascending the corporate ranks, a taxing act that has claimed its share of victims across generations.

The question took Wilson-Thompson back some 40 years. She remembered a letter from her mother, Lucille (Bryant) Wilson, ’51, an ambitious soul who had earned a U-M degree at a time when few women, let alone African American women, pursued higher education.

In the handwritten note, her mother spoke of holding the family schnauzer, Rhu, as Wilson-Thompson pulled away from the family home, driving toward her final year at U-M in a teal blue Berlinetta Camaro she had saved some six years to purchase. At the Tesla event, amid the breakneck pace of Silicon Valley, Wilson-Thompson referenced one important directive from her mother: “I want you to work as hard at being happy as you have at being successful.”

Relaying her mother’s words, Wilson-Thompson said, “All of us are in learning curves and journeys … and I was trying to pay it forward, not backward.”

From a 17-year career at Kellogg that saw her rise from an employment lawyer to head of global human resources to her current nine-year run with WBA, Wilson-Thompson has artfully fused a fulfilling professional career as a leading human resources executive—driving company results, building strong teams, and helping others hone their skills—with a gratifying family life and external pursuits.

That much is clear on a sunny April day at WBA’s vast corporate headquarters north of Chicago, where Wilson-Thompson’s enthusiasm and self-assuredness shine inside her fifth-floor office.

Sitting upright and smiling, she begins talking of her upbringing in Saginaw, Michigan, and how those roots shaped and sharpened her life’s adventures and perspective.

Her father, John L. Wilson, was a millwright at General Motors for 42 years, and Wilson-Thompson adopted her father’s interest in tinkering, which included disassembling and then reassembling Timex watches. Decades later, that curious spirit would motivate Wilson-Thompson to create an automatic eyebrow threader.

“I’m going to try to get it to market, but I want to stress that we can pursue dreams and see them materialize,” she said of her invention, which earned a patent in 2016.

Her intellectually curious mother, meanwhile, struggled to turn her U-M degree into an immediate career, working as a butcher until the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s opened the door for her to teach French, Spanish, and English for nearly 30 years at Saginaw’s Arthur Eddy Junior High. In fact, Wilson-Thompson pursued a career in human resources after witnessing her mother’s career challenges.

“I always wanted to be in a position to ensure that people could pursue whatever they would like to do in life,” Wilson-Thompson said.

With her mother and three older siblings—her brother Lawrence, ’74, her sister Carlotta, ’77, and her late brother Gregory—having attended U-M, Wilson-Thompson was destined to continue the family tradition.

“I was going to Ann Arbor,” she said. “That was pretty clear.”

Colette Rush, ’79, met Wilson-Thompson during an exercise class at South Quad during her freshman year. Noting Wilson-Thompson’s tenacity and academic diligence, Rush and others nicknamed her “Study Group” for her grinding work with an endless parade of peers.

“You could absolutely sense she was destined for greatness,” Rush said of Wilson-Thompson, who became her college roommate the following semester. The two would end up living together through their senior year and now, four decades later, are still best friends and the godmother to each other’s children. “She’s my ‘shero.’”

As an English literature major, Wilson-Thompson discovered an uplifting mentor in professor Robert Hayden, the first African American to be named consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (a role known today as U.S. poet laureate). Hayden encouraged Wilson-Thompson’s passion for literature and writing but also urged her to pursue her interests in labor, which led Wilson-Thompson into employment law.

“Understanding the socioeconomic and political implications of work and the history of work in America was something that intrigued me,” she said.

After earning a law degree from Wayne State University in 1982, Wilson-Thompson worked in private practice, the oil and gas industry, and banking before landing at Kellogg in 1992. With hopes of someday becoming a senior executive, she progressed through the legal department’s ranks before finding her way into operations. On special assignment at a cereal plant, Wilson-Thompson negotiated the labor contract with the union amid downsizing. Navigating that tenuous minefield propelled Wilson-Thompson’s ascent into HR leadership.

Dave Ulrich, the director of the human resource executive program at U-M’s Ross School of Business, observed Wilson-Thompson’s grace, insight, and charm firsthand as an adviser at Kellogg and marveled at her steadying presence.

“Kathleen turned ideas into action, involved others so they felt engaged, made decisions to help the business win, and built great relationships,” Ulrich said.

In 2010, Walgreens came calling, and its mission of addressing the health of everyday Americans—some three-quarters of whom live within five miles of a Walgreens store they lean on for daily needs, such as medicine and groceries—appealed.

“I would only leave for something that was purposeful and mission based,” said Wilson-Thompson, whose oversight at Walgreens expanded from the U.S. to overseas following the January 2015 merger of Walgreens and Boots, Europe’s largest pharmacy, and the resulting formation of WBA.

Along with a team of experts in areas such as learning and development, organizational effectiveness, and compensation, Wilson-Thompson has promoted WBA’s culture and values—a mighty task for a $130 billion enterprise that employs some 450,000 people worldwide—and worked to drive WBA’s corporate strategy through people, a particularly critical effort given the company’s burgeoning embrace of digitization. Those efforts include the launch of WBA University, a physical as well as online learning environment that provides varied professional development opportunities to all WBA employees.

“I quite enjoy the fact that I along with my team contribute to our mission, which is to help people around the world lead happier and healthier lives,” she said.

Tesla—a daring company that has endured its share of controversy of late, including calls for heightened board oversight—can now leverage Wilson-Thompson’s many HR skills, including recruiting, people development, and creating a positive culture.

“We have to ensure that we’re driving the business the right way, shaping the right culture, developing great teams,” Wilson-Thompson said. “Even through artificial intelligence, technology, and automation, it’s important that we know that at the core of it is people.”

As proud as Wilson-Thompson is of her professional work, she doesn’t flinch to name her crowning achievement: her 21-year-old daughter, Taylor, with husband Donald Thompson, a former urban studies and education professor at U-M. The young woman broke family tradition by attending an Ivy League school.

Wilson-Thompson pulls up a video of her daughter. As Taylor describes extracurricular pursuits from slam poetry to a cappella and announces her desire “to revolutionize the education system,” her mother’s smile widens.

“My greatest joy and greatest accomplishment,” Wilson-Thompson said at the video’s conclusion, “is that I was able to rise to the level I have while raising a strong, activist daughter.”

It took mindfulness and self-care to get there, Wilson-Thompson admits, but as hard as she worked at being successful, she worked just as hard at being happy.

Consider it a mother’s wish answered.

Daniel P. Smith is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist who has written previously for Michigan Alumnus about entrepreneurs such as real estate magnate Sam Zell and Five Guys Burgers & Fries founder Jerry Murrell.

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