Career Advice HR Focus

Different strokes

Microsoft’s executive VP of HR Lisa Brummel says flexible staff are vital for effective change

When you work for one of the world’s top IT companies overseeing the HR function for roughly 100,000 staff, every day is guaranteed to bring its share of challenges. But when there is also a new chief executive with ideas for change to implement, and a further 30,000 new employees to integrate as the result of a successful takeover, the intensity ratchets up a couple of notches.

That is the situation facing Lisa Brummel, executive vice-president of human resources at Microsoft, who was in Hong Kong recently on one of her regular Asia-Pacific visits. And while others might quake at the situation, the Redmond-based executive is essentially taking things in her stride.

It helps, of course, that she knows the organisation inside out, having joined straight from university in 1989. Since then, she has held positions in the consumer, hardware and productivity divisions, as well as having retail and strategy roles. Such diverse experience ensures she is also familiar with the “culture of transformation” which has helped the company pioneer developments in the IT industry and create a forward-looking mindset that is unafraid of change.

“Having a new CEO is an opportunity to define our culture and how we want to work going forward,” Brummel says, referring to Satya Nadella, who replaced Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft in February. “It is a very important time, as we bring in new people and adapt the great assets we have built to provide new solutions for customers and new ways of doing things in the modern world.”

This entails providing products and services on multiple platforms for an incredibly diverse range of customers, ranging from individuals and schools to governments and multinational businesses. This requires all types of talent, but especially people who think innovatively and are flexible in the way they approach their work. To find them, the company maintains close links with colleges, universities and business schools worldwide, and recognised centres of excellence where the best research is done. In Asia, this includes Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China.

To take account of personal preferences and changing corporate needs, key recruits in Asia may increasingly have the choice of working in their home country or in the United States. In an experimental programme run in India which offered this option, the response was roughly 50-50 – a surprise, since it was assumed most would want to try their luck in the US.

“Some want to reach out, others prefer to give back where they are,” Brummel says. “But, overall, we are going to have a lot more mobile workforce [in the future]. We hire people who want to work at Microsoft, but someone in Hong Kong, for example, may want to be in different parts of the world where we have offices – that is possible.”

This highlights a theme central to the company’s HR strategy – the importance of flexibility and addressing the needs of the individual. There has to be a commonality of purpose and approach to organise the activities of a broad population. Clear criteria and lines of communication are essential to keep the machine running and the wheels of commerce turning.

A “one size fits all” policy has no place, Brummel says. Far better in terms of recruitment and management development is to take on and train people with differing points of view and ideas on where they want their careers to go.

“There are always ‘hot’ companies which put out a particular product or service – that happens all the time. In Microsoft, you have a tremendous amount of opportunities to work in a variety of different businesses,” says Brummel, citing her own experience. “That means people are still very excited about coming to work for us and that we can attract [candidates] with a good sense of customer needs, leadership capabilities and the ambition to move up quickly.”

Following the completion of Microsoft’s takeover of Nokia’s devices and services business at the end of April, Brummel is now busy with the challenge of absorbing an extra 30,000 staff with minimum disruption and training them to do things “the right way”.

Brummel’s method is to start by telling people where the organisation wants things to end up and making clear what characteristics, skills and training are needed. Building from there entails wide-ranging consultations to elicit comment on points of strategy and, importantly, ensure managers identify what is required and know how to get the right skills in the right hands.

“[In an exercise like this], some people will move quickly, some will struggle, and there are always some who drop out,” Brummel says. “Microsoft is no different from any other company in this respect, but we have a great structure in place to do change, and a good message to get people moving in the right direction.”


Lisa Brummel outlines some of the steps Microsoft takes to engage with and get the most out of staff.
Two-way communication “An in-house social media platform, known as Yammer, allows staff to make suggestions and get near-instant feedback.”
Clear vision “We spend a lot of time talking about what it means to be in the modern Microsoft, to be mobile and collaborative.”
Diverse workforce “We love people to enhance the culture and the set of beliefs people act upon.”
Agreed targets “We always set goals at the beginning of each year. It is important to tell employees what we want them to accomplish.”