How To Think Like a Microsoft Executive


One of the things I do, as a patterns and practices kind of guy, is research and share success patterns. 

One of my more interesting bodies of work is my set of patterns and practices for successful executive thinking.

A while back, I interviewed several Microsoft executives to get their take on how to think like an effective executive.

While the styles vary, what I enjoyed is the different mindset that each executive uses as they approach the challenge of how to change the world in a meaningful way.

5 Key Questions to Share Proven Practices for Executive Thinking

My approach was pretty simple.   I tried to think of a simple way to capture and distill the essence. I originally went the path of identifying key thinking scenarios (changing perspective, creating ideas, evaluating ideas, making decisions, making meaning, prioritizing ideas, and solving problems) … and the path of identifying key thinking techniques (blue ocean/strategic profile, PMI, Six Thinking Hats, PQ/PA, BusinessThink, Five Whys, … etc.) — but I think just a simple set of 5 key questions was more effective.

These are the five questions I ended up using:

  1. What frame do you mostly use to evaluate ideas? (for example, one frame is: who’s the customer? what’s the problem? what’s the competition doing? what does success look like?)
  2. How do you think differently, than other people might, that helps you get a better perspective on the problem?
  3. How do you think differently, than other people might, that helps you make a better decision?
  4. What are the top 3 questions you ask yourself the most each day that make the most difference?
  5. How do you get in your best state of mind or frame of mind for your best thinking?

The insights and lessons learned could fill books, but I thought I would share three of the responses that I tend to use and draw from on a regular basis …

Microsoft Executive #1

1) The dominant framework I like to use for decisions is: how can we best help the customer? Prioritizing the customer is nearly always the right way to make good decisions for the long term. While one has to have awareness of the competition and the like, it usually fails to “follow taillights” excessively. The best lens through which to view the competition is, “how are they helping their customers, and is there anything we can learn from them about how to help our own customers?”

2) I don’t think that there is anything magical about executive thinking. The one thing we hopefully have is a greater breadth and depth of experience on key decisions. We use this experience to discern patterns, and those patterns often help us make good decisions on relatively little data.

3) Same answer as #2.

4) How can we help our customers more? Are we being realistic in our assessments of ourselves, our offerings and the needs of our customers? How can we best execute on delivering customer value?

5) It is key to keep some discretionary time for connecting with customers, studying the competition and the marketplace and “white space thinking.” It is too easy to get caught up on being reactionary to lots of short-term details and therefore lose the time to think about the long term.

Microsoft Executive #2

There are three things that I think about as it relates to leading organizations: Vision, People and Results. Some of the principles in each of these components will apply to any organization, whether the organization’s goal is to make profit, achieve strategic objectives, or make non-profit social impact.

Vision

In setting the vision and top level objectives, it is very important to pick the right priorities. I like to focus on the big rocks instead of small rocks at the vision-setting stage. In today’s world of information overload, it is really easy to get bombarded with too many things needing attention. This can dilute your focus across too many objectives. The negative effect of not having a clear concentrated focus multiplies rapidly across many people when you are running a large organization. So, you need to first ask yourself what are the few ultimate results that are the objectives of your organization and then stay disciplined to focus on those objectives. The ultimate goal might be a single objective or a few, but should not be a laundry list. It is alright to have multiple metrics that are aligned to drive each objective, but the overall objectives themselves should be crisp and focused.

People

The next step in running an organization is to make sure you have the right people in the right jobs. This starts with first identifying the needs of the business to achieve the vision set out above. Then, I try to figure out what types of roles are needed to meet those needs. What will the organization structure look like? What kind of competencies, that is, attributes, skills, and behaviors, are needed in those roles to meet expected results? If there is a mismatch between the role and the person, it can set up both the employee and the business for failure. So, this is a crucial step in making sure you’ve a well running organization.

Once you have the right people in the right jobs, I try to make sure that the work environment encourages people to do their best. Selfless leadership, where the leaders have a sense of humility and are committed to the success of the business over their own self, is essential. An inclusive environment where everyone is encouraged to contribute is also a must. People’s experience with the organization is for the most part shaped by their interaction with their immediate manager. Therefore, it is very important that a lot of care goes into selecting, encouraging and rewarding people managers who can create a positive environment for their employees.

Results

Finally, the organization needs to produce results towards achieving the vision and the objectives you set out. Do not confuse results with actions. You need to make sure you reward people based on performance towards producing results instead of actions. When setting commitments for people, you need to be thoughtful about what metrics you choose so that you incent the right behavior. This again helps build an environment that encourages people to do their best. Producing results also requires that you’ve a compelling strategy for the organization. Thus, you need to stay on top of where the market and customers are. This will help you focus your organization’s efforts on anticipating customer needs, and proactively taking steps to delight customers. This is necessary to ensure that organization’s resources are prioritized towards those efforts that will produce the highest return on investment.

Microsoft Executive #3

  1. Different situations call for different pivots.  That said, I most often start with the customer, as technology is just a tool; ultimately, people are trying to solve problems.  I should note, however, that “customer” does not always mean the person who licenses or uses our products and/or services.  While they may be the focus, my true “customer” is sometimes the business itself (and its management), a business group, or a government (addressing a policy issue).  Often, the problem presented has to be solved in a multi-disciplinary way (e.g., a mixture of policy changes, education, technological innovation, and business process refinements).  Think, for example, about protecting children on-line.  While technology may help, any comprehensive solution may also involve government laws, parental and child education, a change in website business practices, etc.
  2. As noted above, the key is thinking in a multi-disciplinary way. People gravitate to what they know; thus the old adage that “if you have a hammer, everything you see is a nail.” Think more broadly about an issue, and a more interesting solution to the customer’s problem may present itself. (Scenario focused engineering works this way too.)
  3. It is partially about thinking differently (as discussed above), but also about seeking the right counsel.  There is an interesting truth about hard Presidential decisions.  The more sensitive an issue, the fewer the number of people consulted (because of the sensitivity) and the less informed the decision.  Obtaining good counsel – while avoiding the pitfall of paralysis (either because you have yet to speak to everyone on the planet or because there was not universal consensus on what to do next) is the key.
  4. (1) What is the right thing to do? (This may be harder than it looks because the different customers described above may have different interests.  For example, a costly solution may be good for customers but bad for shareholders.  A regulatory solution might be convenient for governments but stifle technological innovation.)  (2) What unintended consequences might occur? (The best laid plans….).  (3) Will the solution be achievable?
  5. I need quiet time; time to think deeply.

The big things that really stand out for me are using the customer as the North Star, balancing with multi-disciplinary perspectives, evaluating multiple, cascading ramifications, and leading with vision.

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Comments (4)

  1. Dragan Radovac says:

    Executive perspectives are very interesting. I like Microsoft Executive #2 most. Especially the definition of People and Results from this person.

    "How To Think Like a Microsoft Programmer" would be an interesting read also.

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Dragan — That is an excellent suggestion, and a very catchy title.

  3. Cary Grant Anderson says:

    And this is why Microsoft has had such disasters recently?  That they have such great managers?  Ballmer most likely purged all the good and great people out because they didn't think his way (and only his way).  Others mostly likely hid.  Now they have a chance to come out and change Microsoft and actually rescue it.  Let's hope that they do so quickly.

    I think that most executives do NOT think about what's best for the customers.  Especially Microsoft execs.  Microsoft has shown a long experience of ignoring customers and dictating and monopolizing their position.  I think most executives start out the day thinking, "What can I do today to get ahead in the organization?" and that means that is the TOP priority at all times.  #1 is either an anomaly or a BSer.

    #2 seems to have a good handle on things.  It would be good working in his/her group.

    #3 is quite that analyst.  That's good in the right position.  Else he/she will be run over by more politically savvy.  Which is an unfortunate fact of corporate life.

    All in all, this is a very nice and useful article (and research) that you have written.  I am writing a book on Software Psychology and Software Innovation Psychology and would like to see more of this research and articles as it educates people and can provide info for my book.  If you're interested in discussing just get in touch with me via email.

    Thanks.

      – Grant

  4. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Cary — I think some leaders tend to be more internally focused, while other leaders are more externally focused, while other leaders are more balanced.

    One of the trickiest things to balance tends to be the board.   The market, shareholders, and customers don't always align in values.

    As I see more teams and leaders shift to a customer-connected and Agile approach, I see more exponential impact at a speed that will surprise people.

    Once you're on Cloud time, changes happen fast.  In fact, the challenge is no longer can you deliver in a timely fashion, it's can customers absorb the value, and can you drive change effectively.  Additionally, empathy and relevance for customer's pains, needs, and desired outcomes is paramount.

    And of course, the real art and science is evaluating solutions for business feasibility and fit.

    I think a big change also from a Cloud perspective is going from "behind the firewall" to out in the great wide open, where competition is fierce (and some call it, hyper-competition.)

    The secret behind all of this comes down to values.  Values are the ultimate lightening rod in terms of attracting employees, attracting customers, and building great software.

    Leadership values shape the culture that creates the system and ecosystem through which value is delivered.

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