When I first joined Microsoft, I had an idea of what I thought the culture would be like.
I knew the environment would be dynamic and fast-paced – a reflection of its focus on driving innovation in the cloud. And I understood that CEO Satya Nadella had implemented some serious cultural changes over the past few years. I identified with Microsoft’s emphasis on empathy and empowering others to achieve more, but it wasn’t until I started that I realised Microsoft genuinely practices what it preaches, from diversity and inclusivity to building technology that makes a difference in society.
These thoughts came to mind again recently, when I spent the week at Microsoft HQ in Seattle with 176 fellow MBAs from 23 countries at Start Strong to kick off the Microsoft Aspire MBA programme.
If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a two-year programme designed to help MBA graduates build strong relationships, accelerate leadership, and develop a meaningful career with Microsoft. So, what did I take away from our first in-person event?
Building authentic human connection
I’m not talking about networking in the traditional sense. This isn’t a job fair. Think interaction that fosters genuine connections between people who may have different backgrounds but similar career goals.
It started with a simple day one ice-breaker:
What do you feel? What might be distracting you? What is your intention for the day?
As basic as it may seem, we can often forget to touch base with team members who may be feeling stressed or down. By vocalising our feelings, it helps to focus our purpose for the day.
Across four days, we were assigned to different groups and participated in a variety of activities designed to help us to build as many authentic human connections as possible. In the workshop ‘The power of human connection’, we were paired with each other to answer questions like…
What do I love the most? What do I fear the most? What do I hope for the most?
Building trust in a safe environment is the name of the game here – and with someone I’d never met before, running counter to common belief that trust must be built over time. As the facilitators mentioned, ‘trust is something you give someone, not something you earn.’
This idea also extended to the ‘Finding my values’ workshop. Here, where we talked extensively about our triggers, acknowledging our emotions, and pressing pause to figure out the course of action. Verbalising what my triggers are – an overflowing inbox is one, another is being hangry! – helped me understand what I bring when I’m not at my best, and the impact it has on others.
We win when we empower others and collaborate
‘Partnerships are journeys of mutual exploration, and we need to be open to unexpected synergies and fresh ways to collaborate. Openness begins with respect – respect for the people at the table and the experiences they bring, respect for the other company and its mission.’ – Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Hit Refresh
While Satya was talking about partnerships with our competitors, it can also refer to internal competition, and the common perception that business school students are vying to outdo one another.
From my experience, that hasn’t been true. During the MBA, collaboration brought more benefits than competition. Don’t get me wrong, healthy rivalry in the professional setting of a case competition can be stimulating, but I always learnt more working with my classmates rather than against them. This has also been true about my time so far at Microsoft – our KPIs demand we build on others’ work and help colleagues succeed. My teammates often compliment each other on their work or how they tackled a problem. We give each other kudos, and are genuinely interested in each other’s perspectives during meetings.
During our week, we simulated running Microsoft for 4 years where the goal was not just revenue and consumption, but also to foster a culture of inclusivity and customer obsession. Halfway though, teams were told to swap one member out for a member from another team. Though our team came close to last place, a key lesson learnt was around on-boarding and asking the incoming team member what worked for them and what our strategy was, instead of just carrying on business as usual.
One of my favourite workshops was a hackathon to develop a sales tool or process to help the 30,000 Microsoft sellers improve information flows between themselves and customers, or between themselves and internal stakeholders.
My team saw people from finance, HR, tech sales, product marketing, and CMO join together to come up with SAM (Seller Automated Messenger), a chat-bot in the guise of a cute owl. Using machine learning and AI, the bot was able to assess customer requests and route them to the right seller. By inviting the sales specialist on our team to start by explaining her pain points, and by bringing in expertise from our different business areas, we were able to quickly map her problems to solution areas. It’s another example of how diversity helps us better collaborate.
Don’t know it all, learn it all
It’s no secret that Microsoft has a learn-it-all culture, but what does that really mean? Jo Sweales, Microsoft UK’s L&D Business Programme Manager, believe it’s, ‘someone who’s keen to obtain as much information, different points of view and detail as they can in order to perform to the best of their ability and deliver the greatest results. They understand that feedback is crucial to both bring the best solutions and their best selves every day.’
Start Strong was the beginning of our learning career at Microsoft. An example was the tech workshop where we analysed customer requirements for a fictional sports league association. We were tasked with designing a solution to modernise their e-Commerce website and backend services using Azure PaaS.
Several times in the discussion, I found myself looking on cluelessly while the cloud architects in our group delved into fault tolerance, regional failover plans, and blob storage. As someone who normally likes to hit the ground running with three-part frameworks, I found myself unable to contribute technically. In the end, however, the non-technical members of the group and I asked so many questions that our solution had few holes in it that could be poked. I also really appreciated how the more knowledgeable team members took time to explain the difference between PaaS and IaaS, for instance, even finishing off with a demo of Visual Studio.
The power to do amazing things
And it’s not just learning about our products. This is an opportunity to take on new skills, habits, ways of working, and continuously improving to deliver the best for internal and external customers. Most people I’ve met at Microsoft are naturally curious. They almost always probe deeper into any given piece of information or data, yet their self-awareness enables them to take on board any feedback.
My personal learning list is getting longer by the day – it’s literally titled ‘things to do when I have time’. It ranges from Azure Fundamentals through to courses on LinkedIn Learning and our AI Business School. And that’s before we start on the countless free eBooks employees can borrow through Microsoft Library. By the way, one of the books on Bill Gates’ reading list, Nine Pints, is a fascinating read about blood and its history.
As Microsoft’s Global Aspire Program Manager Toni-Marie Lowney – who seamlessly pulled off this event off with her team – put it:
‘All of you have the power to do amazing things and as you start your career in Microsoft, the Aspire team are all looking forward to seeing, hearing about and being a part of your journey. As you return to your role and teams next week challenge yourselves to think differently, to apply what you have learnt and to continue to invest in yourself.’
Find out more
For more information on the Microsoft Aspire MBA, check out the careers page.
If you’re interested in our learn-it-all culture, take a look at How to introduce a learn-it-all culture in your business: 3 steps to success and watch the session from Future Decoded.
About the author
Alissa joined Microsoft UK two months ago, having completed her MBA at Madrid’s IE Business School, and is part of the Microsoft MBA Aspire programme. As paid media lead, she ensures that locally relevant stories and key insights are being delivered to the right digital audiences at the right time. Passionate about tech for good and tech as an enabler to achieve more, Alissa also works on the digital marketing strategy for Microsoft’s UK AI output, covering everything from the AI for Good accelerator programme to AI research.