What my first boss taught me about leadership

A man smiling and seated

By Ahmed Mazhari, President, Microsoft Asia. This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

Challenge the status quo.

These four words capture the spirit of my very first boss. They sum up one of the most important lessons I learned about nurturing talent.

Fresh out of school and just six weeks into my new role, my boss had me up in front of senior leaders, presenting the conclusions from a significant project I was a part of. I was terrified, but the confidence my boss showed a rookie like me gave me the courage to believe in myself.

The experience taught me the importance of embracing a challenger mindset, bucking established norms, and betting on people. I can confidently connect these ideas to the foundation of resilience in the workforce today. In this current and uncertain economic climate, we need them more than ever.

As 2020 draws to a close, it is worth reflecting on how much has changed. Our personal lives and routines were upended, while businesses scrambled to innovate and adopt new technology to ensure survival.

To me, these changes mark the beginning of a new business mindset. As an American author once said, “If necessity is the Mother of Invention, then adversity must be the Father of Re-Invention.”

I am encouraged to see how people around me have risen to meet COVID-related challenges head-on. It has been a grim reminder that amid all the unprecedented disruptions and setbacks, one thing remains constant – the primacy of talent.

One of the most important things we do as leaders is to help people grow and thrive in the face of adversity. Over the years, I have often thought back to that first job and realized that my greatest impact is to help others achieve their full potential by imparting three lessons of my own: To coach selflessly, learn infinitely, and change courageously.

Building Resilience

How can these ideas help you build a resilient workforce?

First, apply the idea of coaching selflessly to attract and retain the best talent. This does not necessarily mean checking the usual boxes like having a college degree, a certain number of years of experience, or being from a particular industry.

I know one IT manager who liked to recruit programmers with a background in music even if they did not have much coding experience. He reasoned that music was its own form of “code” that helped them learn quickly and find elegant solutions.

So, look for attitude and aptitude. Seek out those who are aligned with your company’s mission and culture. These are more important indicators of long-term success. Help these smart, passionate people grow into their roles.

Second, the sail that carries us forward is the breadth of ideas, and the unique experiences of every individual, a diversity that, when drawn out and brought to bear, means we can all learn infinitely. You can only get that breadth of perspectives and ideas when you have diversity of people with different backgrounds. That leads to constructive and creative tensions that spark innovation.

A recent study by McKinsey found that companies with executive teams that ranked in the top-quartile of ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the bottom quartile by 36 percent in profitability.

The most effective leaders are those who listen to different voices and inspire that behavior in others. Often, when we find ourselves struggling with a thorny problem, our instinct may be to take control by being assertive and bossy. At those times, I find solutions come more easily when I tell myself to stop and listen to those around me with a curious and open mind.

Third, use the idea of changing courageously to support employees in building skills that help them anticipate and adapt to changes. I’m inspired by the words of the Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakaura: “The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings”.

Making sure that people everywhere can embrace continuous learning needs to be a top priority. Microsoft estimates that by 2025, some 149 million new jobs will be needed globally in technical areas such as software development, cloud, and cybersecurity.

Leaders across business, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should work together to understand the demands of the future workforce and create skilling opportunities for all people to remain competitive in the digital, tech-enabled jobs of the future. Educational institutions must move from being content-based to being more practice- and skill-oriented.

The importance of culture

Screenshot of a video conference call
ABOVE: Diversity is what makes us stronger, and taking time to immerse oneself in another’s culture like this virtual Haka session with our Microsoft Asia leadership team leads to greater appreciation and understanding.

As I try to live Microsoft’s culture every day, I often think back to the lessons that first boss taught me and how they shaped my career and approach to leadership. Those lessons guided me to coach others to take on challenges they did not think they were ready for.

They gave me the courage to learn new things and the confidence to advocate for myself. And they taught me that failure is not a limiting event that signals an end, but rather, a learning mechanism to help us get better and improve the chance of success.

For Microsoft, all this ties directly to our mission of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. As our Chief Executive Satya Nadella says, “The only way to achieve our mission is to live our culture.”

As leaders, wherever we are in the arc of our careers, we can all use the ideas of “teach, learn, and change”, to build resilience in the face of an uncertain future.

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