“Educate youself.” With Tyler Gallagher & Jean Thompson

I put my heart and soul into this business, and my team and partners do the same. If you rush or say “good enough” you will slowly erode the quality of your brand and company. It takes discipline to stay diligent about the quality and the details at every step, but it will pay off […]

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I put my heart and soul into this business, and my team and partners do the same. If you rush or say “good enough” you will slowly erode the quality of your brand and company. It takes discipline to stay diligent about the quality and the details at every step, but it will pay off in the long run.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Thompson, CEO and Owner of Seattle Chocolate Company.

Jean Thompson is the CEO and owner of Seattle Chocolate and jcoco. A longtime fan and investor in the company during her previous life as an executive at Microsoft, Jean acquired Seattle Chocolate after the Nisqually Earthquake destroyed the company’s factory in 2001, and with no prior C-suite experience, boldly stepped in as CEO to rebuild the business from the ground up.

Dedicated to responsible sourcing, Jean and her team frequently visit cacao-growing regions around the world — including South America and Africa’s Gold Coast — to gain a better understanding of the production process on the ground. An advocate for education about the chocolate industry, Jean incorporates sourcing facts into Seattle Chocolate’s factory tour to open up the dialogue around cocoa farmers’ working conditions — a small step toward finding solutions to the centuries-old, undeniably problematic system. In December 2019, Jean delivered a TEDx Talk entitled, Imagine a World Without Chocolate, in which she discusses the nuances of the industry, and her hopes for its future.

Jean oversees the brand direction for both Seattle Chocolate and jcoco, and continues to inspire her team to push boundaries in the realm of chocolate. She sits on the board of a local, women-owned catering company, Gourmondo, the National Confectioners Association (NCA), Ethical Apparel Africa, and The World Trade Center of Washington. Jean also serves on the Tukwila City Committee, and is chairperson of the communications committee for the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA).

When she’s not indulging in the latest seasonal bar or truffle, Jean enjoys staying active with therapeutic bike rides, or a hike in the beautiful PNW. She loves gathering around the dinner table with family and friends, often ending these meals with chocolate.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for having me — great question. Honestly, I never set out to run a chocolate company. I was a longtime fan of Seattle Chocolate, and while I was working as an executive at Microsoft, an earthquake struck Seattle and destroyed the company’s beloved factory. I watched as something that I was rooting for fell apart, physically and financially, and I saw an opportunity to get involved. At that point I signed on as one of the company’s lead investors but wasn’t really privy to the day-to-day.

I ended up financing the company’s move to another facility, but was cheering the company on from the sidelines as I was a stay-at-home mom. That all changed a year later, when the company was still unable to cover payroll. I joined full time as a member of the Sales and Marketing team, and 6 weeks into my new role, as I was truly just starting to get my bearings, our CEO suddenly stepped down. As the primary stakeholder in the company, I had to make a decision: hire a new CEO or step into the role myself. I chose the latter and have been at this post for about 20 years. What a ride so far!

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

The company was struggling when I stepped into this role, so not only was I responsible for learning the ropes of supply, production, sales, etc., but also being a support system and rallying the team. The daily learning curve, and making big decisions was one of the biggest challenges, but it allowed me to figure out what kind of leader I wanted to be, what my goals for the business were, and the true potential of it. The first couple of months, even years, taught me that there is no one right decision — I was figuring it out along the way but being driven by intuition and creativity helped the business get back on its feet and ultimately grow.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

As I mentioned, I think that being kind to yourself and knowing there isn’t one right way allowed me to think big picture while not getting caught up in the little things. I let my gut be my compass, because that was the only way I knew how to move forward, and I’ve continued to do so as we’ve evolved and grown. Knowing what I’m not the best at, and how to ask people who do those things well for help, has also allowed us to grow and succeed.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

  • There’s no one right way to run a company

Per the above, I had no C-suite experience, and wasn’t trained on best practices in this space, but I did my research, I asked questions, and requested help when I needed it in order to support the growth of this business. Was every decision I made (or am going to make) the absolute best? Who knows! But, with the information I had, I made these decisions based on what I thought was right and the best at the time. This is grounding and keeps me going.

  • The right person in the right seat is WAY more important than the smartest person in the wrong seat.

Hiring trustworthy people that understand your vision and bring something valuable to the table is incredibly important to growth, as well as the day-to-day operations. Sometimes it takes a long time to find this right person to sit at the table, but it is always worth the wait. I’ve also found that when I look at my current team and make decisions to play to their strengths, we see excellent results. Knowing everyone on the team’s superpower is vital.

  • Take time to read and grow individually (close the office door for a short period of time to allow for this growth — it’s OK!)

During this truly uncertain and trying time, I’ve been able to go outside, sit in the sunshine, and enjoy breaks throughout the day (even if they are brief) to recharge and re-energize. We live in a fast paced world, and creating this space for individualized growth — reading something thought-provoking, listening to a new song or a podcast, taking a walk — are all essential to slowing down and allowing myself to take a step back. It’s amazing what it does for my creative juices, and allows me to approach decisions, big and small, with a well-rounded perspective.

  • Don’t settle for less; be demanding, expect excellence with every little thing and always do the right thing, even if it isn’t the best financial option.

I put my heart and soul into this business, and my team and partners do the same. If you rush or say “good enough” you will slowly erode the quality of your brand and company. It takes discipline to stay diligent about the quality and the details at every step, but it will pay off in the long run.

  • Know when to call in the experts, you cannot possibly know everything!

It is important to remember that even as a leader, you aren’t on an island. Tapping experts and contractors outside your field is not only OK, but encouraged. Don’t feel like you need to be 100% self sufficient — asking for help if it is going to ensure the job is done, and done well, is well worth it.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Know I mentioned this briefly, but making time for yourself to step away from daily tasks to explore and play will not only allow you to be more refreshed when you come back to what you’re doing, but it will recharge your energy, creating balance. I encourage my team to travel, spend time with family and friends, and do things that they love (and to share them with our team!) to create a sense of community while encouraging that admittedly difficult-to-strike work/life balance that everyone works toward.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

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 in the industry, to the consumer and everywhere outside the company. She didn’t sugarcoat things, but she gently gave feedback when she thought I was in the wrong. She pointed out things that she thought were going off track as soon as she sensed them — she has great instinct — and showed me what being a true team player looked like. It’s been such a privilege to work with her in both of these stages of my career.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

My most pressing goal is to educate consumers about the potential, complexity and nuances of chocolate. I’m hoping that it will be the next great craft movement. Despite the fact that it’s been around for millennia, people know very little about where it’s grown, the variety of species and flavors, the process of fermenting and drying and the rest of the production process, all of which impact the flavor in a huge way. If we hope to preserve a prosperous future for the industry’s farmers, we need to understand that it’s really a food, and so much more than a sugary candy. For me, that’s both a personal and professional goal; the lines are quite blurred after 18 years!

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

A company that can survive into the future with two well-respected brands that are consumer favorites.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

As a business owner, even small decisions can positively benefit the environment. In 2019 we decided to convert our entire twist-wrapped truffle line to a compostable material and we vow to swap all of our truffle wrapping by 2020. While small, reducing our carbon footprint is something that we’re very focused on right now. Waste is a global problem, and we want to do our part.

I’m also passionate about giving back to those in need. We launched our giving campaign with Seattle Chocolate’s sister brand, jcoco — for every 3oz of jcoco chocolate sold, Seattle Chocolate Company donates one serving of fresh food to those in need. We take pride in this, especially now given the current climate. We’ve donated over 10 million servings since the launch, in partnership with Northwest Harvest, The Food Bank of SF + Marin, and The Food Bank for NYC.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@seattlechoc | @jcocochocolate

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