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CHRO Connection: Kathleen Hogan

Digital Transformation at Microsoft​

​Microsoft Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan spoke with HR People + Strategy Executive Director Lisa Connell about her journey in evolving and empowering the company’s workforce as well as the importance of HR’s role in driving the company’s digital transformation.

Lisa Connell: What was your journey that brought you to your current role as Chief People Officer at Microsoft?

Kathleen Hogan: I didn’t start my career in HR. My degree is in applied mathematics and economics from Harvard University, and I started out at Oracle as a software developer and later was a marketing manager. After Oracle, I got my MBA at Stanford University, and then joined McKinsey. I was a partner in the firm and Microsoft was one of the many clients I served. When Microsoft offered me a fulltime job, I couldn’t resist. After nearly 15 years with the company, I am still learning new things and growing in my career. In my last role before becoming chief people officer, I ran the Microsoft Services organization (over 20,000 consulting and support professionals worldwide), so I had a lot of experience where your success is dependent upon your ability to attract, develop, and retain exceptional talent.

When [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella called and asked me to help evolve our culture and empower Microsoft’s global workforce, I was excited about the opportunity to lead HR and work to make a difference for others, yet I knew I had a lot to learn. I spent a lot of time that first year meeting with my peers in the industry and learning from my colleagues at Microsoft. Three years later, I feel like I am still just getting started with so much to learn, but I’m so excited about the progress we’ve made, and incredibly grateful for the support of so many of my peers and the outstanding HR colleagues at our company.
LC: What pivotal moments stand out as shaping your career?

KH: Believe it or not, one of the most fundamental moments of my career was in fourth grade when my teacher, Mr. Dedhart, saw my potential and told me he thought I had a knack for math, which ultimately led to my pursuit of mathematics in college.

Mr. Dedhart is one of many people who encouraged me along the way, and over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have (and still have) several powerful mentors in my life who helped coach and guide. Another example was when Kevin Johnson, now CEO of Starbucks but at the time leading Worldwide Sales and Services for Microsoft, encouraged me to take a new role leading customer support.  He helped me scale from leading a team of 250 people to 9,000. This was a pivotal moment in my career where he inspired me to take a risk, believe in myself, and step up as a leader. 

LC: What is one thing about the role of a CHRO that you think most other executives don’t realize is critical to an organization’s success?

KH: If you had asked me this question a few years ago, I think my answer would have been slightly different. Today, I see the increased importance of HR and its elevated role to help drive a company’s digital transformation. As so many companies transform with digital at their strategic core, they require people transformation alongside that change. HR is critical to helping companies evolve their most important asset—people—and using people data and analytics to help in decision making. In this new digital world, the increased need for insights around talent, change management, agile and innovative teams, learning and development, and diversity and inclusion means CHROs are playing a much more strategic role.

LC: How would you describe your leadership style? 

KH: I try to paint a big-picture vision for what we collectively are trying to achieve together as a team, and then support and empower my directs and their teams to deliver. I love winning as a team and celebrating our milestones together. And I hope I always lead with respect, trying to listen and understand first before asserting. I am so fortunate to work alongside amazing people at Microsoft who share a strong sense of purpose and come to work inspired to make a difference in the world. In my role as Chief People Officer, it’s my job to help empower our incredibly talented employees so they can pursue their passions and make that difference. And to truly empower people, you must show respect for their perspectives and ideas.

LC: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? Why?

KH: Hands down it’s been working alongside Satya and the leadership team to transform our culture. It’s been so inspiring to be a part of a journey where we’re empowering people to find purpose in their work and to use the Microsoft platform and our technology in amazing and meaningful ways. While our culture journey is far from over, I’m humbled to work with Satya and I have loved watching how the company has evolved over the past few years.

LC: What has been your role in driving Microsoft’s culture change and how would you rate the progress so far? 

KH: I’ve been proud to partner with Satya and our senior leadership team to help envision our culture, and then work to evangelize and activate that culture with 120,000 employees across 190 countries. And I am proud to work with each employee of Microsoft who, one by one, are making this the culture we aspire to have.

As a tech company, we used technology to help land our culture, including things like measuring employee awareness and sentiment through daily pulse surveys, and providing collaboration tools that allow Satya and our leaders to connect with employees at scale. 

I recently wrote a piece on LinkedIn recapping our top 10 learnings from the culture change efforts. While I am proud and encouraged about our progress to date, I think it’s important to stay humble and acknowledge that we’re still on that journey for a long time, frankly forever.

LC: What advice would you give to a rising HR leader? 

KH: I have three pieces of advice for ANY rising leader. 
The first is that nothing replaces hard work. You can be incredibly talented, but hard work can surpass talent any day. 
Second, it’s incredibly important to listen and learn from others. The best and brightest ideas can come from any person at any level. Having a growth mindset and opening yourself up to diverse ideas and learning opportunities will make you a better colleague and a better leader. 

Finally, get clear on your personal purpose and why what you do matters. I get so much meaning from our mission as a company which is all about empowering others to achieve more.  And definitely in HR, we have the privilege to empower the people who empower others. That guides me as a true north and gives me energy on those tough days that we all have. 

LC: If you could work on solving any HR problem, what would it be? 

KH: I think one of the most important issues facing all companies is the need to build a more diverse and inclusive workforce. And more specifically, I would love to see more women and racial and ethnic minorities in technology roles and in senior-level positions. As a company—and with my peers in the HR industry—we spend a lot of time discussing this issue and working to find and fund solutions. At 
Microsoft, we invest in programs like DigiGirlz, which has offered more than 40,000 girls the opportunity to participate in STEM, as well as our partnership with NCWIT Aspirations in Computing for women, and our TEALS program where we have embedded volunteer computer science teachers in 349 schools across 29 states. We’re making progress, but there’s still so much more to do.  

LC: What are you learning right now?

KH: As I sit with my son and watch him do his homework, I’m continually amazed by how his generation consumes knowledge and uses technology to enhance their education. I went to a library to find the help I needed with my schoolwork, but my son and his peers are one click away from answers to a physics homework problem or details for a history assignment.

As a parent, I’m also fortunate to witness firsthand how the future workforce is learning, and the spirit of lifelong learning and personal growth that they possess. It’s challenged me to think differently about the future of work and how we set employees up for success.

LC: The future of HR is…

KH: Across Microsoft, we’re talking about five key trends that we believe represent the future of human capital management:

  1. War for talent. There is and will continue to be a scarcity of talent in the digital era. 
  2. Rise of AI and automated work. The accelerated pace of technology is driving the transformation of work and key skills.
  3. Diversity and inclusion is existential. A diverse and inclusive work environment is essential for business success. 
  4. Purpose and culture as currency. More important than financial incentives, employees look for a sense of purpose and a culture that supports their values. 
  5. Fluid and flexible. There is a shift underway to move from formal to dynamic teams and leadership. 

The future of HR is going to be personalized to the unique needs of employees, data-driven for empowered decision making, and HR will be more important than ever to the success of every organization. Yet in the midst of all these changes and progress, above all, HR will continue to be about helping humans. HR professionals will continue to need empathy to understand each person’s situation and their unique perspective and will work to enable them to achieve their full potential.