Microsoft president reveals what a 'successful CHRO' looks like

Kevin Peesker, Microsoft Canada’s president, is no stranger to transformational leadership

Microsoft president reveals what a 'successful CHRO' looks like

Kevin Peesker is no stranger to transformational leadership. At the helm of Microsoft Canada since 2017, Peekser’s 28-plus years of experience in technology has taken him to over 70 countries. Formerly the president of Dell EMC Canada, Peesker is an icon in the in the industry – and his commitment to customers is unprecedented. 

HRDC: Microsoft is famous for its collaborative culture – what’s the secret to your success? 
Kevin Peesker
: I joined Microsoft four years into Satya Nadella’s tenure as CEO, and it was clear to me from the start that our company culture started with him and his leadership team but was viewed as coming to life through the ownership of each member of Microsoft globally. From day one, Satya asked every employee at Microsoft to approach their work with a growth mindset. He believed that the only way we could be truly successful is to be a ‘learn-it-all’ culture instead of a ‘know-it-all’ culture. By doing so, he freed everyone to be curious and to tackle challenges – whether they’re solving a customer’s problem or solving global challenges like climate and accessibility – by breaking down silos and tapping into the collective wisdom of their peers. When this unleashing of human potential is aligned to a powerful mission – to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more – you have a team galvanized with shared purpose.  

I think of enabling culture as being similar to requiring air to breathe. A core piece to the culture puzzle has been providing Microsoft employees with technology that empowers them to create and collaborate, not only across teams but across offices and time zones. At Microsoft, we’re reimagining modern workplace technology to better serve the people in it. We developed Teams as a hub for teamwork that brings together conversations, meetings, files and apps into a single app so everyone on the team has access to the information they need to do their best work wherever and whenever they’re most productive.  

Before our customers use the latest software releases, we drink our own champagne and push the tech to our people. There is often a pushback on inflicting change in an organization, but in today’s transforming world, change and adaption must be a core muscle of culture. I was at a meeting recently where Satya mentioned, “You don’t get fit by watching other people go to the gym.” When it comes to culture, it is a participation sport!   

HRDC: How would you describe your leadership style? 
KP: It is an absolute honour to lead the incredibly capable and talented team at Microsoft Canada. I grew up in a smaller city in Western Canada in a highly egalitarian environment where every person was recognized for the value they bring to the community. Being respectful of others, truly appreciating their contributions, being humble and confident to take risks – that was my upbringing, which I do consciously endeavour to ingrain in the way I show up.   

Being in the tech industry for just under 30 years across five continents has shaped a leadership requirement to be agile, resilient, empowering and enthusiastic. When I joined Microsoft on day one, it was shared with me that an expectation of leaders and team members in the company is to create clarity, generate energy and deliver results. It took me 30 seconds to internalize and figure out – wow, that is so crisp and real, I love it, I can do that, and hey, I can use that template every single day as a leader in this incredibly fast-paced, somewhat complex industry. 

Technology is accelerating at a rate that was once unimaginable. I do feel all leaders, regardless of industry, must be agile and willing to quickly change course to compete. For some, the uncertainty is unnerving, but it also creates tremendous opportunity – not only for Microsoft, but also for our partners and our customers. Our job as leaders is to create clarity.  

When it comes to generating energy, deep in my core, my energy comes from being grateful – grateful to have been born in a country like Canada, grateful for a great education, for the learning from others, for my family and friends. I’m thrilled to get up and at it each morning! 

When it comes to delivering results, I find grounding in our mission to deliver impact in all we do – to make a difference – and I am tenacious is pursuit of our mission. I do hold others to high standards and encourage our Canadian leaders and team members to be similarly tenacious. Going back to the concept that culture is a participation sport, so is being a leader. I know I just can’t learn from my partners and customers by sitting behind my desk, so I spend as much time as I can in their offices, plants and in the field, where I can see firsthand the challenges they face and work together to leverage technology to drive enhanced outcomes.  

In that same vein of growth mindset, I try every day to learn something from my peers, my direct reports and all of the brilliant people working at Microsoft Canada. Microsoft is full of smart, passionate employees – that’s one of the reasons why Glassdoor named us the best place to work in Canada.  

HRDC: As a leader in the technology field, how do you believe technology has changed the way we work today?  
KP: Digital transformation unlocks new potential for organizations, but digital transformation is about technology, people and leadership. Leaders play a critical role in unlocking the true and complete capability of their organizations. In my view and experience, the sooner the lines of organization hierarchy are obliterated, the faster real innovation will be executed. Great insights are not limited to certain levels in the org chart. When accessed, the expectations, knowledge and skills of every employee in an organization – from the front-line work on the factory floor or the front desk to the executive boardroom – create incredible outcomes.  

Technology is a catalyst and accelerator of collaboration, connection and creativity. The democratization of knowledge has been unleashed by technology; we need to take the next step to access capability within our organizations via modern, empowering tools to accelerate the level of transformation that any organization can achieve.  

As I travel coast to coast, there’s a growing conversation around the importance of culture in enabling companies to keep pace with the level of transformation they must achieve in order to survive and thrive. In hearing from our partners and customers, and in the experience we’ve had at Microsoft with our own cultural transformation, we see a new culture of work emerging, led by the possibilities that technology brings to the table.  

There is an accelerated shift to more open, collaborative environments and the ability for employees to work anywhere and anytime they choose. This requires tools – we use Microsoft Teams – that improve collaboration, bringing together everything a team needs, including chat, meetings, video conferencing, multi-party online document creation and integration across Office 365 apps. It inspires creative thinking and agility instead of routine process. It rewards dynamic teamwork and data-driven problem solving over command and control. And, when done right, employees feel more connected to each other and to the organization. I am regularly online with colleagues from 15+ countries; we’re all on video, sharing and creating in the same document, running persistent chat. The participation and outcomes are incredible. 

Companies that have committed to their digital transformation are seeing tremendous payoff in the form of more super-engaged, energized employees; streamlined access to data insights; and a faster pace of innovation. However, organizations that fail to use modern solutions simply cannot compete – they will struggle to retain the best talent and to meet the evolving expectations of employees. I had a one-on-one with a senior leader who joined us a few weeks ago from a different tech company in the industry. She shared how blown away she is with the quality of the tools to collaborate and create. The modern workplace is real! 

HRDC: Microsoft has a motto of ‘Do what you love.’ How do you instill that from the top down? 
KP: I love my job, but I am more than the president of Microsoft Canada. I am a husband, a father, a coach, a mentor and a sometimes over-the-top proud Canadian. All of those things are important to me, and working at a company that gives me the flexibility to serve every part of my life allows me to be totally focused when I’m at work. When my employees see that in me, they feel empowered to focus on results at work so they can pursue the things that matter to them.  

When it comes to work, I believe you are most successful when you love what you do. I love to laugh and have fun, so I do my best to inject humour and celebration into our culture. I’ve seen the studies that a happy workplace is a more productive workplace. This one is simple. Life throws so many challenges at us as it is. I thrive on challenge, as I believe most people do. We feel better in our accomplishments when they require effort. But effort doesn’t have to be a grind – we can have fun and feel energy working on complex challenges. We all tend to spend … more time at work than any single other non-sleep activity, so why not make it a fun, enjoyable experience for all? 

HRDC: What is the role of HR in digital transformation? 
KP: Digital disruption is happening across the globe, and the organizations that are most successful not only have a solid business strategy in place, but also an active, evolving culture. HR is a critical business partner to each leader within an organization and an advocate for each employee – never more so than when an organization is transforming. From hiring the right talent to building a solid change management strategy, having regular feedback loops with employees and introducing new workplace programs, HR is critically important to ensuring employees understand and are aligned to where the company is headed.  

As I look at our own experience at Microsoft, the culture that Satya, HR and the leadership team built and continue to foster is one of the key reasons we were able to successfully transform into the organization we are today. While we are almost four years into that journey, we continue to transform every day to ensure we are empowering our customers, partners and all Canadians to achieve more. We have accomplished a great deal, but as Satya discussed with his senior leaders just last month, we are only one-third of the way through our transformation as a culture and as a company. That statement is yet another example of one of the things I love about working at Microsoft.  

HRDC: What do you look for in a CHRO?  
KP: To me, a successful CHRO is one who is committed to constantly learning, working with the leadership team to elevate employees to the top of the business strategy, and being intentional in setting the agenda of the organization’s people strategy. I do feel each member of the leadership team must walk the walk, get out with customers, with partners, and be active in front-line meetings to understand how the pulse of the organization fluctuates. A great CHRO must deeply understand the business they are in and their industry to add value to strategy, talent acquisition and retention, organization design, and competitive imperatives.  

To me, the CHRO plays a vital role of advisor and is a truth-teller for the CEO/president and the senior leadership team – an individual who has the trust of the entire team to manage discussions with complete confidence and discretion. 

It is especially imperative that a CHRO in any organization is intentional about diverse and inclusive hiring – because how can you build products or processes for everyone if how you look on the inside of your company is not representative of your customers and partners in society? It is clear that when people are the focus of the organization – when employees feel included, represented and heard – everything else naturally falls into place. A CHRO who is aligned and committed to this philosophy and to building a collaborative digital culture is the perfect fit not just for Microsoft, but for the vast majority of organizations. 

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