To Accelerate Change, Microsoft Goes ‘Simple,’ but Not ‘Simplistic’

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Microsoft's culture change journey has been marked by a persistent focus on going simple and establishing its essential leadership principles.

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Kathleen Hogan is the Chief People Officer at Microsoft, which means she runs the show on building culture among 130,000 employees. So how does she do it?

One way is by relying on what’s simple, without being simplistic.

“One of the key lessons in defining culture is to be simple but not simplistic,” Hogan tells Adam Bryant, Managing Director at Merryck & Co, as part of the LinkedIn series Strategic CHRO. “That really helped us, rather than saying, ‘Our culture is 50 attributes or 50 values,’ which nobody can remember.”

Essential to exhaustive

For the past few years, NLI has partnered with Microsoft to deliver this simplicity — to go from the exhaustive (50 attributes or 50 values, as Hogan says) to the essential. Today, Microsoft relies on just three key principles: Create clarity, Generate energy, Deliver success.

“Frankly, this has exploded like wildfire across the company,” Joe Whittinghill, Microsoft’s General Manager of Talent, Learning, and Insights, reported from the stage of the 2016 NeuroLeadership Summit. And the culture change has seemed to bear fruit, too: Microsoft’s stock has nearly tripled over the past few years.

Leadership principles must be simple and essential, or else they just won’t work. The brain can only hold so many things in mind at one time before we begin to forget. And not just any words will do. They must be sticky — memorable enough that people won’t just recognize them, but can actually recall them unprompted.

In this way, leadership principles are deceptively tricky to craft. They can’t just be a handful of simple phrases. Instead, they must distill the organization’s core values to the leanest possible expression — something people can say in three seconds — and clear enough that people can develop new habits to embody those principles.

Knowing where to grow

Of course, Microsoft’s story would be incomplete without mention of the company’s focus on growth mindset. CEO Satya Nadella has often said he wants the company to move from a culture of “know-it-alls” to a culture of “learn-it-alls.” Rather than prove themselves, Nadella wants people to improve themselves.

Ultimately, Microsoft’s leadership principles act as a compass for pointing that learning journey is certain directions rather than others.

To learn more about Microsoft’s culture change journey, check out Joe Whittinghill speaking at the 2016 Summit.

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