The Future of Work With Jacob Morgan

Kate Johnson is President of Microsoft US, a $45 billion division including all of Microsoft’s solutions, services, and support revenues across public and private sectors in the United States. Kate is responsible for a team of 10,000 people and she has been very involved in Microsoft’s culture journey led by CEO Satya Nadella.

Prior to Microsoft Kate served as the Chief Commercial Officer for GE Digital. She has held several key senior leadership roles at GE, Oracle, Red Hat, and Deloitte Consulting.

Kate believes that leadership is a state of mind, it’s not about how many people you lead or your seniority level, it’s about the characteristics and skills you demonstrate on a day-to-day basis. You can be a leader if you are an individual worker without anyone reporting to you directly just as much as someone can be a leader with thousands of employees reporting to them.

Important experiences for anyone aspiring to be a senior leader
Kate has a very diverse background when it comes to her career. She got her degree in engineering and worked in that field for a while before going back to get her MBA. After she finished her MBA she spent several years in management consulting, then moved into banking, and then she moved to the IT side of things. She has worked in inward-facing roles and outward-facing roles. And she has also worked in several different countries around the world.

Not everyone will have the same path, but the important thing about her diverse experiences is that she was always learning and growing--she didn’t just stay where she was comfortable. She shares that it is also important, especially if you want to lead a global company, to learn about different cultures and immerse yourself in them to build relationships with people from all parts of the world. In order to truly understand different cultures proximity is crucial, you have to go there and immerse yourself in it, even if it’s for a short time.

Although Kate has had a lot of work experiences, she also brings up the importance of implementing changes and watching them develop--which takes time, in her opinion at least three years. So while the days of staying at one company for your whole career are gone, it also doesn’t mean you should continuously move every 1-2 years.

And when it comes to the debate between being a generalist or a specialist, Kate says, “I always tell people I'm working with, you've got to pick--are you going to be that generalist or are you going to be somebody who goes deep in one thing, whether it's a function like finance and you want to be a CFO and you've always known that, or, is it something horizontal that you're picking, like change? And I don't think there's a right answer, I think the world is going to continue to be hybrid. Because we need both, we need the deep experts and then we need, you know, the people who can kind of be a utility player and pinch-hit. I think it's getting harder to get the big jobs as a utility player that hasn't at least gone deep in certain things and owned the implementation of the changes that they've dreamed up.”

The lessons Covid taught us about leadership
There is no doubt that the pandemic and the past year and a half have changed the way we lead our organizations. Kate shares that one of the big lessons we learned is around crisis management. What we have gone through has reminded us that this is a core capability that every leader needs to have.

Leaders need to be able to handle a crisis with optimism and calm. They have to be able to assure everyone in the organization that they are all in it together and they have to bring comfort to employees through these tough times.

Another thing Kate says that we have learned is the importance of the agility of your portfolio and your go-to-market. “The world just changed overnight. For Microsoft, you know, how do we take our existing technology capabilities, which so many companies were slow to adopt, and make it easier for them to adopt so that they can do years of digital transformation in hours and days, just so they could stay in business. And that was a whole different sort of crisis management, you know, and response that we needed to do.”

It has taught us all to be agile and flexible, we have to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice with the current pace of change and extraordinary circumstances out of our control.

Going through this past year and a half has caused a lot of stress, fear, and exhaustion for leaders and individuals alike. Employee experience and employee wellness should always be top of mind, but it has definitely become even more critical during this time.

What Kate looks for in leaders
When she is looking to promote someone or hire someone into a leadership position Kate says the principles of leadership at Microsoft have been her main guide. The fundamentals of leadership are:

  1. Clarity: A leader is someone who generates clarity so that everyone knows where it is we are headed
  2. Generating energy: Once we know where we are going, leaders need to motivate and excite people to go chase whatever that goal is
  3. Knowing how to deliver success: Leaders have to be able to define success in a way that resonates with every single person on the ground

These are the main qualities she looks for in potential leaders. And you don’t have to be a leader of many to demonstrate these three things.

The difference between senior level leaders and those who just aren’t there yet
If you are an entry-level or mid-level manager looking to work your way up, you may be wondering what it takes to move up. One of the key differences between someone who is ready to lead at a higher level, Kate shares, comes down to how leaders drive change.

As humans, we all tend to pivot towards what makes us comfortable and when an organization goes through a time of change there is something called the frozen middle. Leaders in the mid-level range play a huge role in how the transformation goes. There are two ways leaders address change, and Kate says she can now spot the difference within 3 minutes of a conversation with someone.

When it comes to change there is implementation vs. ownership. One type of person reads about the changes that need to take place and when they meet with their team they attribute accountability to a more senior leader--”Kate wants us to drive culture change so we have to do X, Y, Z to get to that end result”. For this type of person, it’s all about checking off boxes and following instructions. This is implementation and this type of person usually ends up falling back to what is comfortable for them.

Then there is ownership. This person personally takes accountability for the change process. They explain to their team members what it is that we as a company are trying to do, why it’s important, and how they will individually play a role in how the company gets there. They bring passion, clarity, and excitement to their team and they explain why the outcome is so important.

Kate says that is the difference between someone who can run the place and someone who can’t.

Kate’s advice for aspiring and seasoned leaders
For anyone who aspires to be a leader someday, Kate’s advice is to demonstrate it now. Don’t wait until you get promoted, do it now no matter how many people report to you. Create clarity, generate energy, and deliver success. These are the muscles needed to lead, so just like working out, if you want to build those muscles you have to practice, practice, practice.

For seasoned leaders Kate says don’t get comfortable and settled in your ways. There is always more to learn. Listen to podcasts, read books, talk to people--make sure you keep yourself open to grow and develop, no matter what level you are at.

Also, hubris is kryptonite to leadership. Going around thinking you have all the answers and trying to prove yourself right all of the time instead of listening to others will be your downfall. Stay humble, keep learning, and surround yourself with great people of diverse backgrounds. There’s no way one person can know it all.

Now more than ever we need to take a step back to define what it means to be a leader and what great leadership looks like. But this isn’t easy to do. In fact, man business leaders struggle with this. You cannot become and build what you don't define. In the PDF you will get a framework you can follow and also see how some of the world’s top CEOs define leadership. Click here to get the PDF.

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