Carolyn Thompson


When James Laflamme asked Carolyn to marry him, he picked out a yellow diamond wedding ring because he wanted the token to be unique, like her. When he placed it on her finger, it felt right. Carolyn, a lifelong expert in placement, knew the ring had landed right where it was supposed to, just as she had helped so many other things land over the years. After marrying off ten happy couples and placing countless individuals in jobs that have transformed their lives, she’s now the founder and Managing Principal of Merito Group, LLC, a firm specializing in talent acquisition solutions. And in this role, she continues her decades-long work to help each person land in the best place for them.

Launched in January of 2014 by Carolyn and one lone support employee, Merito now has 33 employees working in seven states and across continents—a testament to its steady growth path. Nine of those individuals work in-house, while the rest are out in the field serving as recruiters, accountants, consultants, and project managers. Half their business is in retained search, where the firm is paid upfront to work on a special project or receives a deposit toward hiring for a specific role. The rest of their work falls into the category of contingency search, where they do temporary placements in the field or provide staff to perform services on-site. Merito places 80 to 120 people annually, and it has national contracts with seven companies spanning the healthcare, telecom, hospitality, and transportation industries.

Many of the clients who seek Merito’s assistance with placements were once job seekers who came to the company looking to be placed themselves. “When you help people with their resume or through coaching, you get to know them, developing a trust-based relationship of integrity,” Carolyn says. “Then, when they become an executive and need to hire someone, they turn to that relationship. It’s what allows us to exceed their expectations and meet the needs of employees and stakeholders alike, while remaining adaptive to ever-changing economic conditions and trends.”

Carolyn and her team pull long hours to interview between 60 and 100 people per week and to advance case files already pending. She also conducts career coaching sessions in the office, over the phone, and via webcam. “A lot of the executives we work with want help preparing for interviews,” she says. “The higher up they climb on the ladder, the more work they need to do to make that pitch for the next rung.” Much of this work falls within the purview of executive coaching—something Carolyn earned her official credentialing several years ago. Now, she spends about 25 percent of her time coaching executives through the ins, outs, ups, and downs of getting and keeping a job. “I started valuing my time completely differently after I got my coaching credential,” she says. “You can’t create more time, so I’m a lot more discerning now with how I choose to spend mine.”

The firm also specializes in a wide range of services that extend far beyond the field of executive search, including leadership development projects and organizational structure projects. Merito has been hired by large publicly traded companies to help their recruiters identify efficiencies, sharing the expertise she’s developed from working in the thick of the industry on a daily basis.

With bright purple walls in its office, Merito has a culture of respect, collaboration, openness, and individuality. Interviews are done with doors wide open and in common spaces, speaking to the firm’s transparency. And, while Carolyn can’t meet everyone who walks through the door, she aims to get acquainted with everyone the firm decides to work with. “Merito is named after the Italian word for excellence, and we never forget that,” she says.

Striving to lead by example, she places little value on titles. “At Merito, everyone’s job is equally important,” she says. “We all work together, and if someone needs help learning something, I’ll sit down and teach them what we do and why we do it to help them understand. I also think people don’t spend enough time training their leaders, so I send everyone to outside training at least once a year. They bring their ideas back, and then we do three in-house training days a year to review topics relevant to leadership, the industry, and the practice.” Committed to pushing these themes beyond the walls of her office and out in society as well, Carolyn has worked to develop a course at George Mason University on Board Preparedness, specifically designed to support women and minority leaders in being active board members.

Carolyn’s passion for supporting women in leadership perhaps stems back to her childhood, born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, the oldest of two. Her gregarious father worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while her mother was a teacher until she passed away when Carolyn was only ten years old. “It was miserable to lose her,” Carolyn remembers. “She worked a lot, and my sister, a baby at the time, was learning disabled, so there wasn’t a lot of time for closeness. It was tough, but I did emerge with strength and independence.”

In a sense, that independence manifested itself in a drive to be self-sustaining. Carolyn set up lemonade stands and took babysitting gigs when she was young, but the first signs of her entrepreneurial leanings came out in high school, when she picked up cake decorating. She had learned to bake with her grandmother, whom she spent a lot of time with as a child. During her junior year of high school, she started making birthday cakes and wedding cakes with up to twelve tiers, meticulously icing them with ornate detail. She would often fill two dozen orders a week, and would make cakes for the families she babysat for as an extra bonus.

In high school, Carolyn loved taking a statistics class and then applying it from the sidelines of football games. She did well academically, earning mostly B’s but graduating with a 104% in chemistry because it came naturally to her. With 4,000 students in her high school, the guidance counselors had little bandwidth to address individual students, and nobody pushed her to truly apply herself, so she sailed by with minimal effort. “My dad wanted me to become an accountant, but I had no thoughts about what I’d do in life,” she remembers.

In Omaha, not many people left, and not many new people came, but Carolyn’s world expanded when her father enrolled in the USC School of Public Administration to earn his masters degree. The family moved to Virginia for that fourteen-month period mid-semester during her junior year, and by the time she returned to Omaha during her senior year, her perspective had acquired new depth. “My school had always been cliquish, but now that I was a pseudo-new kid, I was really popular,” she recalls. “During my time in Northern Virginia, I had gone to school with a lot of military brats, and people were used to coming and going all the time. It was a completely different mindset, and it made me realize I couldn’t wait to get out of Nebraska. It was so landlocked—so isolating. But I didn’t know where life would lead me. The plan was to just let life happen as it happens.”

As it happened, Carolyn scored in the 94th percentile on her SATs and sent her scores to several schools. Kansas State University was the only one to reply offering admittance based on her scores alone, without requiring her to fill out an application. She accepted and pursued a major in business with an accounting focus, though she would never do accounting a day in her life after college. She pledged a sorority and spent most of her tenure serving as social chairman, making best friends that would last her a lifetime. While there, she also held her first official jobs—a stint with Showbiz Pizza, a job dressing up as Bill Bob the Bear for kids’ birthday parties, and a part-time job as a bartender for a few hours a week. She also worked part-time as a retail manager at Brandeis, a large local chain. By the time she graduated, she had four years of retail experience.

Upon graduating, she returned home for two weeks and then hopped in her burnt orange Toyota Celica to make the journey to Northern Virginia, where she took a job with a large discount pharmacy called the Drug Emporium. All went well until two weeks into the job, when she was balancing the cash register receipts against the bank deposits and realized the store manager was stealing. Things seemed resolved when she brought the issue to the owner, but by the end of the month, the Drug Enforcement Agency arrested the pharmacist for stealing drugs. At 21 years old, Carolyn decided to remove herself from the situation and accept a position in retail management at Lord & Taylor in the White Flint Mall. There, she became close friends with the other managers in the department store. One of these new contacts had an acquaintance who worked in staffing, who happened to have a sales representative position open. “The job paid a thousand dollars more than the position I currently had, so I went for it,” she says.

From there, Carolyn accepted her first job in recruitment with a woman who operated a small practice in downtown DC. During her first week on the job, she made a major placement—the executive assistant to the President and CEO of ABT Associates in Maryland, who stayed for 20 years. She took several other jobs in the industry, including a job for a large company that asked her to launch an office in New York City. “Some people don’t like doing that kind of thing, but I love it,” she says. “I really enjoy getting new clients and pushing a growth path like that.”

After getting that operation up and running, Carolyn returned to DC to launch another one. She loved the work, but as time passed, she grew tired of the dynamics of being an employee. “I got tired of training my bosses and being the one who did all the work while the boss got all the credit at the corporate level,” she recounts. “When one of my team members suggested I start my own business, I realized it was a no-brainer.”

With that, Carolyn launched her first business, CMCS, with two other women in 2000. They each threw $5,000 into the pot to get the venture going. They grew the business to $7 million in revenue and 148 people on payroll, with an office in Kansas City. During that time, she got her coaching credential but found it difficult to comply with the 40-hours of continuing education credits required every three years. “I had put it off, so I had to get all forty hours in twelve weeks,” she recalls. “I signed up for the classes, but then they were canceled due to low enrollment. Ultimately, I had to go to Fedex on New Years Eve to mail them in, and I knew there had to be a better way.”

As it turns out, there wasn’t a better way, so she decided to create one by launching a company specifically geared toward continuing education for credentialed coaches. Their courses are all approved through the Coach Federation for CPE and are all web-based. Customers can sign up for an on-demand component, and there are also two live webinars each month. Now, the site has built up enough content that an individual can get all the credits they need.

Meanwhile, Carolyn also launched a craft store that grew to 15 employees—a “make your own mosaic” experience in Ballston. “I had learned how to make the mosaics myself, and a friend suggested I turn it into a business, so I did,” she says. “I found the space, opened the store, created the brand, and ran it for several years. It was a good experience, but I didn’t like the burden of maintaining the property, responding to calls at 3 in the morning that our window had been shot in with a BB gun. When the lease was up, we left.”

As well, Carolyn’s partners at CMCS had young children at that point and were ready to spend more time at home. They decided to part ways in 2009, prompting Carolyn to take her portion of the business and join a CPA firm which had an existing recruitment practice doing $1 million a year. Four years later, under Carolyn’s guidance, the practice grew to $7.6 million. Despite her success, she felt it was time to transition out by 2014. “My core values didn’t align with the overarching structure of how the partnership worked,” she says. “I’m more oriented around serving people and achieving results, rather than how much money I’m making for each transaction or placement.”

While frustrating, Carolyn’s time at the CPA firm had been well spent in that it had garnered the launch of the Washington Women’s Leadership Initiative, a 501(c)(3) offering professional continuing education for women leaders. After seeing women and minority leadership development programs take root at other firms, she had originally intended for the program to be internal, but ultimately set it up as its own entity instead. “Several of the women I was coaching were expressing the same problems, so I wanted to create something that could bring them together—not as people in accounting or marketing or government contracting or telecom, but women leaders,” she explains. “Only 17 percent of leaders are women. I wanted to create something designed to raise that number in a substantive way, bringing them together for events based around women speakers who have led teams and can share their stories with others.” The initiative kicked off with a speaking engagement by Ariana Huffington, since its launch, it has accrued almost 200 members.

Now, Merito is the fifth project Carolyn has launched, and in a sense, she’s only just begun. As a serial entrepreneur and a well-respected thought leader in the talent acquisition industry, Carolyn is driven by the possibility she sees in each person who comes her way, including her own team members. “I could do what I do out of my garage at a folding table, but that’s not a company,” she says. “That’s not growth or development or evolution. I love having staff around me, giving me the opportunity to help develop new leaders so they can be more independent. I’ve hired and trained a lot of very successful people in this country, and they will all tell you that our work together defined a very pivotal moment in their life’s trajectory. That’s very inspiring to me.” She is also the author of several books spanning the self-help and fiction genres, most often published under her pen name.

Carolyn’s energy and vigor, which achieve excellence across such wide-ranging scenarios, are supported by her husband, James, whom she married in 2005. Thanks to her talent acquisition insights, James now works as an Executive Vice President, and remains in high demand. “As a couple, we’re entertaining, and we keep each other inspired and moving forward,” she says. “We really support each other for who we are, and that’s very empowering for both of us.”

In advising young people entering the working world today, Carolyn underscores the importance of thorough exploration of interests, followed by the pursuit of something one truly enjoys. “If you don’t enjoy it, it’s work,” she says simply. “I love what I do, so I don’t mind working on evenings and weekends when I have to. The end result is positive and meaningful to me, so it’s worth it.” Indeed, when your life’s vocation is all about clearing the path for others to find theirs, the work is too vital, too exciting, and too life changing to leave undone.

Carolyn Thompson

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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