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 is currently 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.
With the chaotic state of the world right now we need leaders who are courageous and empathetic.
One leader who truly understands how to lead with both courage and empathy in these challenging times is Kate Johnson, the President of Microsoft US.
Leaders can’t just stay where they are comfortable anymore, they have to be willing to take a risk and own all the consequences. They have to be open, transparent, and vulnerable. They have a deep understanding of their people and their customers.
When the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, first approached Kate she was working for GE and felt very loyal to the company. She had no intentions of leaving the company. But she couldn’t turn down a meeting with Satya. And the reason she ended up making the move was because of something he said.
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When Kate had asked Satya about his philosophy around culture he said that Carol Dweck was one of his personal coaches and he spoke of how a growth mindset has the ability to unlock the purpose of a company and the potential of the people. Hearing that Kate knew there was alignment from the top to the bottom of Microsoft and she jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it.
How to lead with courage
Most people probably think about courageous leadership as guns blazing in the heat of the battle or a leader who is invincible and strong. But Kate’s definition is a bit different than that.
She says, “One of the things that we’ve been learning is the connection between courage and vulnerability. So everybody thinks if you’re courageous, that you have no weakness. You are strong, they picture warriors, you know, with lots of armor and heading off. That’s not what courageous leadership is. Courageous leadership is the willingness to activate the troops and own the outcome, but also to do so bringing all of your strengths and weaknesses to the table with total transparency and clarity, and kind of owning work with that and figuring out how to assemble the team to bolster wherever there are weaknesses. And that’s a different kind of leadership that I think is essential today.”
One example Kate shared of how she is living out courageous leadership has to do with the training she has been going through with her team. Kate asked Brene Brown to help 140 leaders in her division. During this learning journey the whole group went to Alabama to spend time with the famed Harvard attorney Bryan Stevenson to talk about race in America.
The group read his book and then spent a few hours talking with him. They were so shocked and moved by what he said they decided they needed to learn more. Kate asked Bryan to speak at the Microsoft Sales Kickoff, which was a great success. Not only did he receive two standing ovations from the entire US team but it opened up some great conversations about race.
Kate and her team decided to go together — 7,000 people across 42 movie theaters to see the movie Just Mercy. Throughout this year she has reached out to her team to ask what she can do to address racial inequalities and racial tensions. She has opened up some tough conversations and pushed the organization to do better.
This is what courageous leadership is. When asked what courageous leadership looks like Kate said, “There’s a million different examples that I could give to you. But the one that resonates most frequently, is when you see a person trying to get it right, instead of trying to be right.”
She mentioned how Microsoft used to be a company of “know it alls” but now, under Satya’s leadership it has become a company of “learn it alls”.
“And a learn it all is somebody who has no preconceived notion of what the answer is, and is all about creating an inclusive process to go get that answer. Courageous leaders show up like that every single day, versus one that isn’t so courageous as one that walks into the room, thinking they know the answer, and thinking that their job is to convince everybody else what the answer is. And it’s that get it right versus think you’re right.”
Balancing family and work
A lot of leaders struggle with balancing work and personal life. There is sometimes a struggle for female leaders specifically who may be pressured by society or a boss to pick between an executive role and a family life, thinking both can’t be possible. But as Kate shows, it is definitely possible to be a successful leader and a great parent and spouse. But it takes work and intentionality.
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Kate says it all comes down to making sacrifices. And she has a practice in place that really helps her put up boundaries. She gives her kids her calendar at the beginning of the year and they get to block out important dates, whether it is a school recital or a sports tournament or graduation. And then her team knows that those dates are spoken for.
There are also certain work black out dates which she knows she has to be present at work for. And it’s when some of the dates overlap that all parties have to come together to find a solution. But it all works out.
Kate says, “I’ve always balanced it. And I’ve always enjoyed both roles. And the more that I can be the same person, as I play both roles, you know, mom to Owen and Jake and leader of MSUS, being the same authentic person with same quality, same sense of humor, same flaws, same pros and cons that’s when I know I’m doing it right.”
Kate’s advice for female leaders
Kate admits that when she first started as a leader she said no to her family more than she did to work, because she felt like she had something to prove and she had to show she was willing to work hard. She didn’t have confidence that her boss would understand if she said no to work.
But she had a wake up call from a boss one time. Kate’s boss asked her one day, “if you didn’t show up to work tomorrow, do you know what would happen?” and Kate said, “I don’t know, what?” and her boss replied “nothing”. The sun will still come up tomorrow whether or not you are here.
She learned that it is okay to say no to work. People will understand. As long as when you are at work you work hard and you have a good reputation, no one is going to think you are lazy if you say no from time to time.
It’s okay to say no. In fact, Kate says saying no to some things will probably help you raise the quality of your game and the places where you do say yes. And this is not something she just practices herself, she coaches her people to say no too.
She actually sent a note out this past month to remind her team to say no more often, especially to things like internal meetings where it doesn’t really bring any value to customers.
The key to saying no is providing an alternative. If you have to say no to a meeting maybe someone else at your level can attend, or maybe the meeting can be moved, or perhaps they could tape the meeting for you so you can keep up to date.
How Microsoft is focusing on empathy
The purpose and mission of Microsoft is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. In order to do that they understand they have to prioritize empathy. Kate says empathy is just deep understanding. In order to serve their customers employees need to know how to be empathetic and how to immerse themselves in the needs of their clients.
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Kate truly believes that, “our empathic muscle is directly tied to how much share we can grab in the cloud market.” So they practice empathy every single day.
Microsoft leaders teach employees how to be empathetic. When interacting with customers employees should listen before they talk. Instead of just talking about the products and services, employees should first get to know the clients unique problems and needs.
Satya Nadella models this for the rest of the company. Kate says Satya is one of the most empathic leaders she has ever worked for. Kate went with Satya one time to see a customer in Nebraska. In order to understand the technology inside of a combine used in the customer’s fields Satya actually got into the combine and drove it.
As Kate shares, “You can’t be empathic without having that proximity, that closeness, to deeply understand something. And so, I hope we’re doing it every single day. Now, it’s a little bit more difficult in the virtual world to practice empathy. But, you know, I think we’re starting to get the hang of moving from this notion of physical proximity to emotional and intellectual proximity, where asking the right questions is how you unlock the next level of learning, as opposed to just getting physical proximity and having great observation skills.”
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