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The Best Leaders Are Insatiable Learners

HBR blogger, Bill Taylor, shares his view on the importance of leaders who are learners and draws upon some terrific examples. I’ll count this as more evidence that Satya’s passion for reading and learning is a great sign for Microsoft (as I said in my July 17th, 2014 blog post).

What Excites Me Most about Satya? He Reads.

With today’s announcements from Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, the three major things I adovcated for in my blog and as part of this PSBJ article over a year ago have come to pass: Ballmer’s retirement, a radical redesign of the review model (jury is still out on the “new” model), and a significant workforce reduction. Though, I still believe that offering a voluntary severance program would be an effective way to reduce some of the bloat.

I am more excited about Microsoft’s future than I have been in a long time. If I could split myself in two, it would be an exciting time to go back and be part of the transformation (I have the great good fortune of an amazing role with PATH that you’d have to bodily drag me away from). But, the thing that excites me the most about Microsoft today is not any of those things.

Love a leader that reads!

Love a leader that reads!

I’m excited because Satya reads. You can tell from his internal communications (the ones publicly posted), you can tell from the initial interviews that were released when his selection was announced. He is an avid reader, which means his mind is open. He is constantly receiving, sorting, parsing, comparing, drawing analogies- in short learning. He is learning as he goes. And he draws from all types of material- non-fiction, fiction, poetry, old texts, new best-sellers. It’s another great attribute that he is an engineer, so he’s methodical and thoughtful but also “gets it” when he talks to his leaders and product teams. It’s a wonderful combination in the leader of a technology company.

Pondering today’s news, I was thinking about how I would sum up my impression of him. (Sadly, we have never met, nor did I ever hear him speak whilst I was at Microsoft.) My impression is of a pragmatist, but one who is also compassionate. He is not overly focused on an artificial goal, which I think also has a lot to do with his practice of reading. As a reader and lifelong learner, one has to constantly update and revise your view of things- whether strategy, the market, the economy, your own life choices. And I don’t think this makes a leader waver and wander- just the opposite. Having a huge store of material to draw upon is like a boat having a deep keel, it makes you steady and thoughtful as you correct course.

Required reading: Bill Gates annual book list

Required reading: Bill Gates annual book list

I think we have seen this great quality of being a reader in many other leaders. I am an avid follower (and reader) of Bill Gate’s book list. (Which he just published a new post- so check it out!). Steve Jobs was also a voracious consumer of the written word.

I’ll confess, if a leader is not a reader, if they are not curious about the world and constantly striving to learn and expand their views, it worries me. It makes me wonder about how flexible and thoughtful their judgement and decision making is. Reading keeps your mind flexible and keeps you open to new ideas. It’s yoga for your brain.

So, as difficult as today’s news may be for some individuals and families, and I’d argue that you could interview all of them in a year and find that the vast majority will be positive about the experiences and possibilities that this change opened up for them, it’s an exciting and necessary step for the company. Remember the people getting laid-off today are no slouches- they are getting laid off from Microsoft. Practically by definition, 99 for every 100 of them are wicked smart, have worked for one of the best companies in the world, and are getting the support from the company to transition to new roles. Change is hard but without it, there is no opportunity.

I am excited for the future of Microsoft and look forward to watching what Satya reveals about his plans and thought processes vis a vis his reading list. Maybe like Oprah, he should start a “book club” to excite and expand the thinking of his employees!

When Was The Last Time Work Felt Like A Gift?

The humble firefly, so simple and yet so amazing.

The humble firefly, so simple and yet so amazing.

It’s been just over two weeks since I began my new job at PATH and I couldn’t be happier. As an organization we do incredible, meaningful work and every person I have met thus far has been kind and welcoming, not to mention incredibly talented, dedicated, and hard working. So it may not come as a surprise that I had a profoundly moving experience at work this week. But this rare moment was not because of the lives we strive to save, nor was it because I learned something new about one of the many technical or scientific innovations that we develop. Rather, this experience was so small and slight, that it might have been a firefly on a warm summer evening, flitting past, subtle enough to be invisible to the inattentive eye.

It all started with a going-away party. A member of our HR team is leaving, relocating with her family to another state, and we had a small celebration to commemorate her time with PATH. At first blush, it was a sincere but modest affair- red velvet cake, bowls of popcorn, and her favorite movie playing on the overhead projector, while people talked and joked and asked about packing, moving, and her plans for her new home. Then, as the gathering was winding down- a colleague of ours, out of the blue said to the woman leaving, “Just a minute, I am going to sing you a song,” then she left the room briefly and retrieved her computer. Shyly, she said she wouldn’t do the original justice, but she was going to sing it anyway.

She started the music on her computer and the sound wafted tinny and soft from the speakers, and after a few moments she began to sing this magical little song I had never heard before. The song, “A Life That’s Good” is from the show Nashville and it has all the makings of an enduring favorite- reminding the listener by turns of a lullaby like “You Are My Sunshine,” a ballad like “The Rose,” and gold standard of heartland country, “I Will Always Love You” (as sung by the inimitable Ms. Dolly Parton, of course!). The small group of us sat there in stunned, almost reverent silence as the gift of this song and its sentiment was shared. The room was dim because the shades had been pulled for the movie and in those few minutes we were transported somewhere far from a high-rise conference room in the heart of a bustling downtown. It was sublime. It felt like watching a thousand fireflies light up the night.

Magical Fireflies

Magical Fireflies

It will come as no surprise to those that know me, that I was moved to tears by this simple and yet profound moment. When my colleague finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room and we all laughed self-consciously about our tears. One person pointed at me and said teasingly, “You don’t even know them and you are crying!” and maybe that’s the point. Here I am, a week into my new job at one of most prestigious and renowned non-profits in the world, which despite the work we do, is still “a job” and should behave like one, right? You can like your co-workers, just don’t like them too much- isn’t that what so many companies and experts tell us?

So what were the conditions that made this moment of deep humanity possible? Is it because we are a non-profit? Is it because our staff (not just in HR but across the entire organization) is 70% women (totally awesome, btw)? Is it because my colleague has an incredible voice (for the record- she blows the version on the show out of the water)?

If I had to offer an explanation, I’d say that those things may have played a part, but that above all- there is a sense of trust. It is a trust that allows people to be vulnerable, to be themselves, to share, and to experience the ups and down of not just the job, but of life. Leavings are hard, beginnings are exciting, the day in and day out can be both or neither.

I walked out of that room and felt such a wonderful sense of peace. Now, think about that. Have you ever walked out of a meeting at your workplace and felt peace?! If you’d told me that I would experience that, I would have laughed out loud and yet there it was.

I think many organizations would be well served to reflect upon how to create this degree of trust and camaraderie amongst their employees. And it can’t be faked or “rolled out” as part of an employee morale program. It comes from caring and being genuine – authentic, as a good friend of mine often says.

Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt to hire talented singers. Thank goodness, I didn’t have to audition- I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

PS- how much do I love a blog post where I can feature Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, June Carter & Johnny Cash?! A damn helluva lot! I do hope you’ll take a few moments to follow the links and listen to the songs.

Down the Yellow Brick Road…to PATH!

Drum roll please….. This is a moment more than a decade in the making, that builds upon experience gained on two continents, and for the first time in my career, combines my corporate/professional experience with my heartfelt passion to be a force for good in the world.

It’s with great pride and happiness that I share with you that I am joining PATH! What is PATH, you say?! I’m so glad you asked! PATH is a global nonprofit focused on transforming lives through innovative health solutions.

Yeah, you still don’t know what they do.

Let me break it down another way-

Should vaccines for common, deadly diseases be available to EVERYONE around the world? Yes! PATH does that!

Should we develop and implement new ways to keep babies around the world healthy in the critical few days after childbirth? Yes! PATH does that!

Should women around the world have access to safe, effective family planning methods and services? Yes! PATH does that!

Should everyone have access to clean drinking water? Yes! PATH does that!

Should these things be done in a way that engages and empowers local communities? Yes! PATH does that!

If you weren’t familiar with PATH before, I hope this gives you some sense of what an incredible organization it is, the scale they operate on, and why I am so thrilled to be joining them.

Now, don’t pack your bags to visit me in some far flung land (just yet). My role is located here in Seattle at our global headquarters, though my heart is already in the field with our staff and the communities they serve.

I’m joining HR as Director of Operations, which will allow me to leverage my existing skills, build lots of new ones, and give me a chance to get to know the entire organization inside and out!

When I step across the threshold into PATH’s offices today, it will truly be the start of a safari njema (good journey) and I can’t wait to see where it leads me!

There is an oft-quoted African proverb that says, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone; if you want to travel far, travel together.” It feels especially fitting because I never would have gotten to this day, and this moment if not for the support of so many incredible friends and loved ones. I am deeply grateful for all the support and encouragement I have received over the years and especially recently.

Perhaps more importantly, I know this maxim will be crucial in my work moving forward and will apply not just to friends and family, but to my work colleagues located in Seattle and around the world! Join hands friends, we are going places TOGETHER.

To sum up my excitement and sense of optimism, I might say I feel a lot like Dorothy headed for Oz to see the Wizard. And, yes- I AM wearing my ruby red shoes.

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