What Does It Mean to Be a Courageous Leader? Ask Microsoft’s Kate Johnson

Kate Johnson, president of Microsoft U.S., leads a $45 billion solutions and services 10,000-person field team to pursue the company’s mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more by focusing on driving transformation.

As a 20+ year business technology veteran, Johnson’s career trajectory includes serving as chief commercial officer of GE Digital, and business transformation roles at Oracle, Red Hat, and UBS Investment Bank. Johnson is also a leader on diversity and inclusion initiatives and is a delegate to Microsoft’s CEO Inclusion Council, which focuses on driving Microsoft’s internal and external diversity and inclusivity agenda.

Johnson holds an MBA from Wharton and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Lehigh University. She spoke at the recent Women in Data Science Philadelphia conference, hosted by Penn and Wharton, with Mary Purk, executive director of Wharton Customer Analytics and AI for Business.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.  

Mary Purk: Kate, can you tell us about your career journey as a start for our conversation?

Kate Johnson: I started with an education in electrical engineering, but after about 11 seconds in a lab doing the work that I had studied to do, I realized that maybe EE was not a good fit for me — both personality-wise and capability-wise. I was probably better on the people side, connecting people to technology rather than building the technology itself. So, I went into selling it and focused on trying to help tech companies grow.

I realized that I needed an MBA to give me the foundation and the fundamentals that I lacked with my engineering degree. I just fell in love with the business side and went into consulting, where I got a chance to sample many different industries, technologies, and business problems. It was an incredible opportunity and I went on to be a CIO of an investment banking division, and from there went to the technology side, where I sold technology to CIOs. I played both a buyer and a seller role.

Throughout my career, I have had three big takeaways. The first is that my story starts with my thinking I knew what I wanted to do, though I did not. Many people think they know what they want to do, and it’s spot-on, and it’s a lifelong passion. Those people are lucky because they can focus. For those of us who do not necessarily know, or we think we do, and we are wrong, I am living proof that it’s okay. The pivot becomes part of the journey.

“Every day you need to open the door for the next experience, rather than approaching life thinking that you know the answers.”

The second lesson is, I never immersed in one function or industry. I went across the top, which gave me a meta-layer of learning. That was extremely important to my discovery that what I love the most, and the thing I was probably best at, was managing and leading change. I love to study it, be a part of it, create it, instigate it, and lead it. I do not think I ever would have figured that out had I taken the more traditional route.

And third, the most important lesson is that in anything you do, you must believe you are worthy and able, and you are the one who can get it done. I have had amazing educational and professional experiences. But the most impactful learning experience — and the most defining element of who I am as a human being — came from my role as a mom for my child who needed help in the classroom [because of] learning disabilities. The way I was approaching the situation for my son was to compare him to traditional standards of what success looks like. The principal of the school when my son was in fourth grade gave me a book, Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. He said, “Kate, you have to read this because the way you’re measuring success is all wrong.”

After reading the book, I discovered how to navigate the classroom with a child who was not necessarily a perfect fit for the standard way of learning. More importantly, it showed me how I could be a better mom, sister, friend, wife, daughter, and professional. It taught me that you can learn or do anything if you are willing to commit to practicing. You must keep an open mind to new ways of doing things. Every day you need to open the door for the next experience, rather than approaching life thinking that you know the answers.

That was fundamental to how I started thinking about my roles at work. It is certainly fundamental to how I think about my role of leading Microsoft’s change in the commercial world, to figure out how to go from selling legacy brand products to being the number one player in the cloud. I am a firm believer that it does not matter who you are, what you’ve studied, or what you want to do. The world is there for you if you are willing to commit the time and the work.

Purk: Thank you for sharing that journey. One of the biggest challenges we face today is the role of technology in inclusion. How is Microsoft approaching and planning for that?

Johnson: Just think about the past year. What would life have looked like if we could not have harnessed the power of a remote workforce to continue to push innovation and growth in our economy? We would have been in serious trouble. Technology enabled us to include the brainpower of most of our workforce to keep going. Companies that had not invested in the basic infrastructure to do that had trouble getting back into the game once the pandemic broke. Frankly, some of them will never be able to catch up. Others that had made that investment doubled down. They asked, now that we are fully operational, what else can we do to innovate to keep ahead? We saw years and years of digital transformation happening just in months. That is the first thing.

Secondly, technology is our chance at including everybody [in the growth process]. I spoke about my learning experience as a mom because I think it is important for all of us to recognize that my unique experience at home is what helps me with my unique value proposition at work. That role as a mom, in addition to all my other roles, has shaped the way I lead teams. Well, guess what? We need people like me in the workforce to make sure that we shape technology in a way that is inclusive of that mindset.

We also need technology to consider all the needs of people who may not have all the capabilities. For example, what if you are sight impaired or hearing impaired? For so long, you may have been blocked out of participating in the economy in so many different vectors. But now technology offers an opportunity to include you. That is why we must continue to invest in technology accessibility for everybody.

“In order to learn in front of people, you have to be hugely vulnerable. You have to admit that you don’t know something to learn.”

Purk: Could you highlight two or three key goals that Microsoft and you as a leader are focused on as an example of what they might expect to see in their companies?

Johnson: I think what you are asking me is, what is your responsibility in this story, and what is Microsoft’s responsibility? This past year we had an awakening. It was born out of tragedy. While I wish we could have avoided each of those tragedies, what happened was when the world was quiet and we were sheltering in place, George Floyd was murdered, Breonna Taylor was murdered, and Ahmaud Arbery was murdered. Suddenly, we had nowhere to hide or to avoid this notion that we have a massive racism problem in the United States of America.

The beauty of the awakening is that it gives us this moment in time where we can use that awareness to improve our ability to drive equality and equity. When you think about a company’s responsibility — especially one whose mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more — there could not be a more important commitment we could make to the communities we serve. We must show the possibility and promise of implementing a diverse and inclusive workplace. We spent a lot of time thinking through what that looks like and how we could make it real. I personally saw it as a major component of my job. We have 175,000 employees — give or take 10,000 — in any given month at Microsoft. That is like a little microcosm of the world. We sell into every single market in the world.

To do that successfully, you must look like the markets you want to sell into. Your technology must serve all the constituents in the markets that you sell into to really be successful. So we had to break the problem down. I have to sell $45 billion worth of stuff this year, and that consumes me at night, I promise you. But what really keeps me up is, how do I make sure that I have created opportunities for human beings who never thought they had a shot at leading in a company like this?

It starts with making sure that we are building the skills that everybody needs — like my workforce of 10,000. You cannot just say, “Okay now you have to be diverse and inclusive.” You must give people the capabilities to change behavior… whether that means daring to lead or learning to rumble. We must figure out how to have difficult conversations about race and what to do with those conversations. Once we get things right inside our organization with skills and operations, we have got to bring that goodness and learning to the markets we serve.

Purk: Could you tell us about Microsoft’s empathy and action plan? What is this, and why are you introducing it now? I assume it relates to what you were just talking about.

Johnson: Yes, 100%. Two years ago, when I was trying to raise up the leadership across Microsoft U.S., I recognized learning as a way that we can all bond. In order to learn in front of people, you have to be hugely vulnerable. You have to admit that you don’t know something to learn. I loved that as a way to bring my leadership team together. I said, “Let’s go learn about race.” And everybody was like, “What?” And I said, “Let’s go to Montgomery, Alabama, and visit Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy.” That was a book that became a movie with Michael B. Jordan and is now a blockbuster. Bryan was somebody that our company had done a lot of work with, and he is known as one of the most empathic leaders of all time. He has dedicated his career to helping the underserved and representing people who were wrongfully imprisoned and on death row.

Sure enough, we flew out there, 12 of us on the leadership team, and spent two days learning about the history of African Americans in the U.S. It was probably one of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever gone through. We have two African American women on the leadership team. It meant a lot to them that we would spend the time to do this, but more importantly, the non-African American members of the leadership team learned a whole lot.

“Courageous leadership means taking on the consequences of all the hard decisions you have to make.”

Bryan Stevenson gave us a formula for empathy. I said, “You’re one of the best empathic leaders I’ve ever met in my life. If I want to drive empathy at scale in Microsoft US, how do I do it?” And he said, “Kate, it’s a formula. Empathy equals proximity. You have got to get close to something. Plus narrative — you must be a great storyteller so that you can tell everybody what is going on. The next element is hope. The narrative must be hopeful; it cannot be negative and surrounded by fear and uncertainty and doubt. The final piece is action, even in the face of adversity, especially in the face of adversity.” That resonated with me. As a change leader, if you can break down something that is ambiguous, amorphous, and hard to define and give me a formula, I will take that and work with my team and figure out how to operationalize it.

The cool thing is that we focused on that first piece — proximity to drive empathy — and made a lot of difference in that first year. As we came into 2020 and experienced what the world experienced, we realized that it couldn’t be a mantra. We could not just be talking about becoming empathic leaders; we had to have a program. That is where we came up with three things: We have to have skills, we have to be intentional, and we have to have operations to support lasting change. Most importantly, we have to bring this to the marketplace.

Purk: How are you able to push the passion towards the mission of creating opportunities for people who never thought they had a chance throughout the organization?

Johnson: One thing I see happening is really important. It might have to do with what we all lived through over the past year. There is not a single company on earth that does not care about corporate social responsibility. We care about our carbon footprint with sustainability, we care about taking our assets and making them available to the society at large. We care about skilling. And we care about bringing health to everybody, using technology, for example, to provide remote health support to patients. Corporate social responsibility has proven time and time again to not only be great for humans but also great for business.

Purk: You have been focusing a lot on courageous leadership. What does courage mean to you?

Johnson: I think about courage in so many ways. If you are an individual contributor or part of a larger organization, courage could simply be this notion of speaking truth to power. That can be hard because you must live with the consequences. People wonder if they will face retribution because their managers do not like what they say, and sometimes it can get uncomfortable. I also must speak the truth to [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella, [executive vice president] Judson Althoff, and all my bosses. Courageous leadership means taking on the consequences of all the hard decisions you have to make. Do you want to be intentional about driving diversity? Well, guess what, there is a whole constituency out there that is not excited to give up privilege.

If you are a leader, you must think about all your constituents. You need to realize that change for some means change for everybody. And you must have conviction, when you bring something like that to the table, because you will have to live with the consequences. I am passionate about courageous leadership because it means you are going to face the consequences for what you are doing. It means you are going to pursue doing what is right, no matter how hard it is.

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