One of the leading communicators in the tech space, Frank X. Shaw has helped lead the company through major transformations.
Ahead of his keynote at this year’s European Communication Summit, we spoke to Frank about Microsoft’s embracing of the Cloud, the impact of Satya Nadella’s leadership on the tech giant’s formerly “know-it-all” culture, and how, in a world of cyber-hacking and data security, trust is core to the company.
Interview by David Phillips / Main image: Microsoft
Before becoming corporate vice president of communications at Microsoft in 2009, you were responsible for the Microsoft account at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. Were there any surprises in taking on this in-house role that you hadn’t expected after your years of Microsoft experience at Waggener Edstrom?
There were two things. One was that, although there were similarities between the roles, I had been in the role of an advisor when I was at Waggener Edstrom. I advised and made recommendations – that was my job. Taking on a deciding role was an a-ha moment.
Second, no matter how well you think you know the company, there are cultural things that aren’t really apparent until you are in the role. Then there are things that even as an advisor you don’t participate in the same way: business reviews, planning, the way you build capacity and do reviews for the team that work for you. I didn’t have as much visibility into that before I joined Microsoft.
What’s the secret to maintaining reputational stewardship of a company that has undergone as many dramatic transformations as Microsoft – including acquisitions, product launches and changes in leadership?
If I had a perfect answer I would sell myself out as a highly paid consultant. A lot of people would like to know how to get it right 100 per cent of the time. We certainly don’t at Microsoft, I don’t think any company does. Having a clear awareness across the communications discipline, and more broadly across the company, around the value of trust, and what it means to be a trusted brand, is the most important thing you can do. And making sure that people across the company think not just about what they are doing right now – whether it’s on Outlook or Skype or Windows – but also think about what this means to the Microsoft brand itself.
"Having a clear awareness across the communications discipline, and more broadly across the company, around the value of trust, and what it means to be a trusted brand, is the most important thing you can do."
If you have powerful brands that sit underneath Microsoft, you could do things that might be completely appropriate for that brand but can inadvertently cause problems for the Microsoft brand.
One of the really helpful things that Satya Nadella did when he became chief executive officer was his emphasis on making sure that people think deeply about the mission of the company. His observation was that Microsoft exists to empower every organisation and individual on the planet to achieve more, and if people understand this then it helps them keep that broader Microsoft context in mind, whether that's an engineer, a customer support person or communications person.
Satya Nadella became the new chief executive officer of Microsoft in 2014, succeeding Steve Ballmer. What kind of conversations did he have with you about Microsoft's organisational culture?
On the day he was named chief executive officer, in his first meeting with the executive staff, which is probably about 130 senior people around the company, Satya talked about the importance of culture and the need to evolve our company. He also talked about how we needed to embrace what he would call the ‘growth hacking mind-set’, which essentially means that you have to come up with ways of disrupting your business model and customer engagement and be willing to try new things. He and the leadership team have evolved that to the concept of growth mind-set, which is a perfect example of cultural change at Microsoft.
In Microsoft’s early days I would characterise the company as having a very effective know-it-all culture. Satya asked us to think about ourselves as learn-it-alls as opposed to know-it-alls and to embrace learning, which includes making some mistakes and learning from what other people are doing, as opposed to thinking that we have all the answers ourselves.
"Satya asked us to think about ourselves as learn-it-alls as opposed to know-it-alls."
It was the subject of many conversations and his ask of the communications function was to make sure that we did a great job of communicating this internally and externally with fidelity.
Has Satya Nadella’s growth-hacking ethos been a vital ingredient in the transformation that the company is going though from being focussed on Windows to moving to a Cloud-based world? Would that transition be impossible without him at the helm?
It's always hard to look back and say what might have happened if somebody else had become chief executive officer. Clearly it feels like the board made a great decision and it was inevitable that Satya was the right person, but of course at the time that wasn't really true - he was relatively unknown outside the company.
But his emphasis on cultural change has really been critical for the company. He talks about three things that come together: concept, capability and culture. For any company to be successful they have to have an idea, a concept. They then build capabilities around it that speeds up this idea, and then a culture that supports the idea and the capabilities.
But when something happens and that idea doesn't work effectively anymore, if you don't have the culture that allows the inculcation of a new idea and new set of capabilities, then the company become less relevant if it’s only been successful with one idea. A growth mind-set ensures the right culture is in place to support new ideas and new capabilities as they come along.
Whether it’s the Cloud, gaming, or artificial intelligence, these all require a different set of capabilities and the culture needs to support those, not fight them.
Satya Nadella (left) and Frank in conversation / Photo: Microsoft
We've also touched briefly on acquisitions that Microsoft has made in its history, including Skype, Yammer and LinkedIn, which is one of the largest such deals in history. How do these highly significant acquisitions transform Microsoft itself internally?
Acquisitions are always interesting from a communication standpoint, especially when you think about how to support them internally, how to use new sets of technologies. Yammer is a great example of Microsoft acquiring a company and then using the technology internally: you're replacing a bunch of work that we did with other sites, there are robust conversations on a regular basis. We think of it as the internal water cooler where people ask questions and expect answers from senior leaders at the company.
When Satya does his monthly Q&As he pulls questions from Yammer to make sure he’s getting a good subset of what people are interested in talking about.
What are the reputational issues involved in major acquisitions of well-established brand names?
Every acquisition has its own attributes. For example, we brought a company called Accompli, which had done the fantastic email client for iOS and Android, and we folded it relatively rapidly into our existing Outlook team. In fact, Javier Soltero, who had been the chief executive officer of the company, ran the entire Outlook organisation for a while and infused that mobile-first ethos across the team. That was a clear fit with something internally so it was a straightforward case of folding it in.
On the other hand are cases like Minecraft, which was Satya’s first big acquisition, where we have to think of ourselves as the steward of the brand. Minecraft has a powerful brand of its own, it was a successful business in its own right, and we believed that if we were careful with it we could do interesting things to make it more appealing to its core customers while also adding value to the rest of Microsoft’s products. But you have to think about it somewhat distinctly as opposed to trying to fold it in.
And then you have LinkedIn where we were very clear when we acquired them that we were going to treat it as a business that was successful in its own right, and that our job was to help LinkedIn accelerate. In our third quarter earnings announcement, LinkedIn performed really well. It's also accruing value to Microsoft, but that's a secondary goal.
The first goal was purchasing a great asset with fantastic people leading it and helping them do their jobs as opposed to the other way around.
Security here in Europe is top of mind right now with the forthcoming GDPR. Microsoft’s transformation to a Cloud-based world brings with it a whole new host of data privacy and security concerns. What can you tell us about Microsoft's communication strategy around the issue of data protection and cyber security?
At a broader level we think about both of these issues as core to trust in the company. We have this internal saying, “Microsoft runs on trust”. We have to be trusted by our customers, by our partners, and by the governments and the institutions that we work with globally.
Trust is made up of a whole bunch of different things, but a big portion is strongly linked to security, privacy and business transparency–are we clear about what we're doing and why we're doing it?
"We have to be trusted by our customers, by our partners, and by the governments and the institutions that we work with globally."
If we agree with you or the government on something, we're clear we agree, and if there are disputes then we're clear there are disputes. That's why we took the US government to court and pushed hard for legislation, The Cloud Act, to clarify some of the ambiguities in current law and to encourage a common legal framework.
For example, how Microsoft conducted itself with regards to the Sony hack, showed that it believes in the power of its convictions.
That is a great example where there were no strong business reasons to do what we did with Sony, but it was an industry-wide issue and we should stand with others in the industry for it, even if it was painful.
You have led communications at Microsoft since 2009. What keeps you motivated and what provides you with a sense of purpose in your day-today job?
I get to work with incredibly bright people at the company, from marketers and business leaders to engineers and communicators, and I get a tremendous amount of energy from spending time with really smart people, tackling really big problems at a variety of different levels.
And the net of that is I feel like I'm always getting a chance to learn new things, new ways of doing things, get a view into what the future could look like and think about what role does communications have and helping make that vision more real. That's just unbelievably satisfying.
I believe you're the first ex-Marine that we've interviewed! What has your time in the Marines taught you about leadership that you’ve been able to apply in a corporate environment and now you could not have learned anywhere else?
As you go through the kind of training that the Marines put you through, you understand what it means to really push yourself, because the expectation is that you can do more than you believe that you can do. And once you do that, once you understand that concept, it changes the way you look at the world. Things you didn't think were possible before become possible, personally. That certainly shaped me as a human being. Another lesson is that everything you do in the Marines is about teamwork.
Of course there are individuals, but individuals are not successful, the team is successful, and the definition of team is quite large.
"Everything you do in the Marines is about teamwork."
That helped me understand how things are tied together and that if you can help people throughout an organisation understand the role that they play as part of this larger team, as opposed to simply telling somebody what to do they will consistently make good decisions. So on good days, if I'm able to provide context to people in my organisation that helps them make a decision that I am not involved with,
I've done my job. And on the bad days you sort of fall back on just telling people what to do. The two are not the same things, one is more effective long-term than the other.