Beau Knows Management

September 29, 2008

At the Management Excellence Community (MEC) Speakers Series this week, Beau Parnell from the Management Development Group here at Microsoft spoke on ‘Crossing the Manager’s Chasm.’ Beau has spent the past 30+ years in leadership and organizational 100_0598development, working in hi-tech and teaching at some of the top universities in the country. Turnout for the event was high, with some great participation from the audience.

Instead of trying to recreate Beau’s presentation, I thought I’d share a few of my own key takeaways. My points below are not as polished as was the presentation, but then again, it’s hard to capture 2 hours of activity in a single post. I welcome comments from anyone else in attendance if you feel I’ve missed any salient points.

Focus and Motivation

He started the conversation by asking the attendees to name the one thing that we all require from our leaders. Inspiration, trust, direction, authenticity, and recognition were all discussed, but Beau’s golden nugget for leaders is “clarity.” He talked at length about how many leaders struggle with clarity, especially in the technology field because we’re seduced by the latest shiny toy. Leaders don’t know how to be clear in their communications, and how to let their people know where to focus.

A common theme from the last few MEC events has been the question of why Microsoft executives do not seem to be paying attention to what is happening within the MEC. The point was made again by a few people in the audience. Beau reminded us all that they’re just human, and at the GM level and higher, are being driven pretty hard — its a bandwidth issue, more than anything. But he also used the question to delve into the primary motivations that drive business: high achievement (which is at the core of Microsoft’s culture, affiliation (building relationships), and power (individual and socialized/team). Personal achievement and passion for technology are the two primary motivations here at Microsoft. The problem is that high tech companies are big on throwing people at the wall like spaghetti — to see what sticks. This is certainly true at Microsoft, and if we don’t like the outcome, we tell ourselves they were the wrong person. (This whole line of conversation made me think of Deming‘s idea that blame is commonly placed on the individual, instead of the system) The problem is that we (Microsoft) can be seen as unwilling or unable to adapt, and to incorporate different styles and perspectives. As managers, we switch positions so often, change teams or reorg so quickly that it’s difficult to see if methods or solutions we’ve put in place could be 100_0600successful. Beau’s point was that we often don’t do things long enough to really measure success.

Connecting With our Teams

After a short audience exercise where we were asked to think about our own experiences, the topic turned to accountability and making changes at the manager level, discussing what it takes to sustain your people. Beau challenged managers to spend more time with our people, walking the hallways, sitting in the cafeteria. He then related a story of of an interaction with Colin Powell, who, he had heard, would go for a walk every day at 3pm and use that time to talk with people. Everyone knew that he was approachable at that time, no matter what level/rank. Beau met Powell and asked him “Did you really take those walks?” Powell laughed and said, “Yeah, I did.” He then asked “Did you have any problems with that?” meaning did his direct reports feel that he was going around them to the lower ranks? Powell said that yes, he did have to clarify his intent with his directs. His staff managers had a problem with it until he explained to them that he wasn’t going above/around them, but wanted to learn directly from the people within his command.

His point in relating this story was that we aren’t even talking to our own customers, to understand what they are feeling. Beau recommends spending more time in the trenches with our teams. Managers are hiding in their offices, because they don’t have all the answers, and they’re afraid. Beau asked us to think about what your people are going through today, not just in their jobs, but in their personal lives. In this climate of change, we all need to be out among our people. People want to know that they’re relevant and important.

Managers Should Be Teachers

As we worked our way through a few slides, Beau reminded the group of Microsoft’s stated brand: the company’s mission is to help people and business realize their true potential. Within this, there are clear requirements for what is expected from managers: leaders who give employees enormous autonomy but maintain the focus on work, that engage people to develop and learn and grow to reach their true potential, and, at the end of the day, to hold people’s feet to the fire.

Microsoft’s new vision statement is “to create seamless experiences that combine the magic of software with the power of the Internet across a world of devices.” To achieve this vision requires collaboration, something we’re not good at. Microsoft is a culture of lone wolves, where “Look at me! Look what I’ve done!” can be heard in every hallway. We reward based on individual contributions, and not on team contributions — or good management. But we want to move to the ‘aspire to’ culture, and are heading in that direction with efforts such as MEC. Beau asked the audience to think about how we position the massive amount of work in front of us with “perpetual motivation.” Just because a team was aligned once does not mean they are aligned always. We need to constantly reinforce and communicate by understanding the story, and telling the story again and again.

A few comments from the crowd indicated that people were frustrated by their inability to see or make change within the company. Beau pointed out that Microsoft needs more disrupters; people who are willing to adapt enough to Microsoft’s culture to gain credibility, and stick around long enough to make change. We lose a lot of good people because they don’t find a “fit” within our culture, and then we collectively dust off our hands and tell ourselves “good riddance.” The problem with this cycle is that we’re failing to learn from these people and make ourselves better (which again reminded me of Deming). Beau reminded us that performance is situational — just because your team is good at one thing does not mean they will be good at everything, so have patience. People have to buy into you before they will buy into what you are saying — credibility is everything at this company. Your people want to know that you yourself can do the work.

Beau’s final statements were around the idea of managers as teachers. He told us that we have to let our people drive the content, and our job as managers is to tie it all together, driving clarity. We need to have a vision of where we want the business to go, and be able to communicate that across all channels. Ultimately, its all about execution, or we miss our opportunities. And finally, you cannot be a leader and go around complaining. You have to understand that clarity and credibility are everything – you ARE the message.


Steven Smith, co-author of Egonomics

September 19, 2008

As part of the Management Excellence Community (MEC) Speaker Series, about 25 MEC members were able to spend some face time with Steven Smith, co-author of the book Egonomics, and share our thoughts — and listen to his advice — on the management culture here at Microsoft.

It was an interesting conversation, which ended up on the topic of Microsoft’s brand, and the company’s recent marketing efforts to remake our image.

Instead of a lengthy post, I decided to pull together a quick video podcast (click to download):

The next Speaker Series will include Jack Canfield, author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, where once again the Management Excellence Community will have an opportunity to spend some “quality time” with the author in a small group. Watch for those invites.