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Stories Asia

Executive Interview

Ahmed Mazhari: Ten questions after 100 days

The President of Microsoft Asia discusses his new role, the power of empathy, the value of partnerships, the impacts of COVID-19, and a few life lessons.

Q1: Congratulations on your first 100 days in your role. What is it like working at Microsoft?

It all starts with Microsoft’s mission: To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. We regard technology not just as a tool for change, but also as a force for good. Our commitments on trust, sustainability, security, and ethics are at the core of all we do and build.

We also understand the value of partnerships, learning from one another, being transparent, and, most importantly, backing our words with actions. It’s great to see us living and breathing this mission every day, especially with the current challenges that affect everyone. We are side-by-side with our customers and partners every day. We are helping develop solutions in all sorts of areas, from critical cloud infrastructure and security to remote teamwork as well as learning and skilling, sales, and customer service.

Also, I’m totally impressed by the company’s own transformation – both culturally and where it is heading. I’ve had some great conversations with its leaders. They demonstrate precision, clarity, consistency, and focus when they talk about Microsoft’s transformation and about innovating at every layer from edge to hybrid to data and AI. They are relentless in delivering cutting-edge solutions anywhere and anytime.

I am learning a lot. For instance, I was struck by something that Satya (Nadella, Microsoft CEO) told me: That as a leader, you must balance “teach and learn.” That is something that has stuck with me.

Q2: What has it been like joining amid the coronavirus crisis? And what do you aim to bring to Microsoft in Asia in the longer term?

Satya put it best recently. He said that when COVID-19 hit earlier this year, two years of digital transformation happened in two months.

I am blessed to have joined at the time when I did. I have never worked in this kind of uncertainty before. I don’t think any of us have, honestly. While it isn’t anything I had planned or expected, I am grateful for what I’ve been able to learn from it.

These are challenging times, and we are always here for our customers and partners – to support them when they move ahead with digital transformation. So, it is more critical than ever that we understand how a client is faring from an industry perspective. I’ve had 10-plus years in the tech industry with manufacturing and financial services, and over 15 years in the services industry.

I bring experience and expertise in solving customer problems, which will become even more essential as we look toward a post-COVID world. That’s where I think I can contribute. As a company, we have a valuable role to play in supporting organizational resilience and economic recovery today and building for tomorrow.

No one group or business can address the challenges of COVID-19 alone. There needs to be a united front of enterprises, governments, NGOs, and individuals.

Q3: What are some of the lessons you have learned during your first 100 days in-role? 

COVID-19 has taught us some important lessons about how interconnected the world is today and how important empathy is. We need to understand what our partners are going through, what our customers are experiencing, what our employees, their families, and friends are dealing with. We should understand their challenges and make a commitment to be part of the solution.

At the same time, one of the biggest lessons is finding the right balance between empathy and accountability. We need to embrace collective leadership. No one group or business can address the challenges of COVID-19 alone. There needs to be a united front of enterprises, governments, NGOs, and individuals. Leaders from all these sectors need to come together. Many of our customers and partners are open to sharing insights, collaborating, and exercising collective leadership. We can all emerge from this pandemic even stronger together.

One way to do that is to collaborate through public-private partnerships with an ecosystem approach. For instance, our partnership with Taiwan’s Ministry of Education (MoE) has significantly accelerated a nationwide transition toward digital education and smart campuses. Around 2.5 million students and 200,000 teachers now use Office 365 and Microsoft Teams so that learning can proceed remotely. It’s a great partnership.

Q4: Why is practicing empathy so important during these turbulent and demanding times?

Empathy can take many forms. But it starts with listening and reflecting. I think leaders, including me, can learn a lot by listening more to employees, customers, and partners. Unfortunately, we often accelerate toward a decision because we believe we have the experience and the leadership skills to make that decision. But we should always start by listening and determining if there is a better way to do something or address an issue.

Overall, being empathetic is being able to understand another person’s point of view. It is always important to show the other person that you have heard them and that you have included their feedback into the decision process. This means you can come to a decision based on a lot of inputs and not just rely on your own point of view or experience. This enables you to be significantly more objective, inclusive, and, in the end, more impactful.

Let me point to a couple of examples of how we have taken an empathetic approach to help our customers: Right now, healthcare is facing a set of unprecedented challenges. After working hard to understand these challenges, we have just announced Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare. It is the first cloud suite that is industry-specific. It brings together capabilities for customers and partners to enrich patient engagement, connect caregiving teams, and improve collaboration, decision-making, and operational efficiencies.

Cloud is critical at this time. I’m proud to see how, in China, we have helped Sichuan’s Huili County People’s Hospital and Chengdu’s Third People’s Hospital deploy a remote consultation platform. It’s an online bridge that connects patients from a remote part of the country with quality medical care. Doctors from both hospitals leverage Surface, Azure, and AI to carry out remote online consultations, and have benefited from discussions with fellow experts to discuss patient cases and diagnoses.

Q5: What are the essentials that every business leader must do, focus on, or address today?  

Firstly, switch your focus dramatically from inside-out to outside-in. Observe, listen to, understand, and question what is happening in the world. Why? Because there is not one soul who can say that they know everything only from their own experiences. I encourage everyone to be open-minded and take in as much information as possible.

Secondly, operate in a bi-modal mode. That is, how are we going to secure and preserve the present? And what are we going to do to invest in the future to enable us to emerge stronger?

Thirdly, remain ever so connected with your people, with employees, with partners, with customers, and ensure that they know you are there for them. Lead with a shared sense of purpose. Maintain a positive focus on moving forward. And create clarity about how you will all get there.

Fourthly, look after yourself. Put in some “do-nothing time” in your calendar. Put in some “I’m going to just gaze at the stars time” in your schedule. One of the biggest worries today is burnout as we are working harder and longer than ever before.

I grew up in a little hill station town called Shillong … Indian culture – along with my parents, family, and friends – taught me to be inclusive.

Q6: Let’s go back to your roots. What core values do you have from being raised in India? 

I grew up in a little hill station town called Shillong. It’s a beautiful area in India’s northeast corner that’s called the “Scotland of the East,” not far from where they grow tea in Assam. It’s about 50 miles from the rainiest place in the world near the border with Bangladesh.

Looking back, I can see that Asian culture and Indian culture – along with my parents, family, and friends – taught me to be inclusive as I make decisions, collect ideas, process feedback, or bring in people to be a part of a team.

The economic inequality I saw growing up also taught me to try to understand what the wider community is dealing with; to understand what so many people are doing every day just to survive. We can all do more and give back.

What I learned from my mom and dad was unflinching integrity. It was drilled into me every single day. I was often told: No winking and no blinking. In other words, mean what you say and deliver on your promises.

Then there was my old school principal who helped change my life. When I left his school to study somewhere else, he convinced me to come back. He came to see me and invested a lot of time and energy in me. His commitment and actions taught me some deep lessons. Firstly, if you care, you should show you care. Secondly, if you really want to help someone, you should demonstrate that with action. And thirdly, coach people. If you find somebody with potential, invest in them – show them the path. He was a true role model who looked for talent and invested his time to coach me with care and empathy. I can’t think of a better parallel than model, coach, and care. It is something that we, as managers at Microsoft, are accountable for – to model, coach, and care as part of our daily work.

Q7: What is your approach to leadership?

Like many people from India, I’m a big cricket fan. In cricketing terms, I love to take big swings in my work as a leader. Have the courage and ambition to try a new, big, maybe even, scary thing. Because that’s where learning and growth really take place, regardless of what happens afterward. I’ve done this a few times in my career, and one could say that I’m doing it again now. I believe good things will happen when you take big swings. That’s why I’ll continue to take them and encourage others to do so as well.

Leaders should find the right people and let them take big swings. But our work doesn’t end there – in fact, that’s where it starts. The rest of it is really being there for the long term, having their back, making the investment in them as they take big swings, and even bigger swings. That’s when your organization can really grow and prosper.

In cricketing terms, I love to take big swings in my work as a leader. Have the courage and ambition to try a new, big, maybe even, scary thing.

Q8: How is the pandemic’s impact changing the ways we live, work, and do business? 

For now, it pains all of us to see the suffering, the emotional challenges, the uncertainties, and the loss of livelihoods. I think it will take a long time for stability to come back into the lives of the world’s 7 billion people.

In the longer term, people will create a new norm for their existence. This will be driven by technology platforms and it will be technology-enabled. Technology can help us do things differently. And this current crisis is accelerating this process. I am encouraged by how our customers are using technology to maintain business continuity and remain agile. Organizations of all sizes in every sector have been using Teams and Microsoft 365 to enable effective remote working and learning.

For example, COVID-19 has made it imperative for people with pre-existing illnesses to stay home due to the high risk of complications. However, these patients also need continuous care for their existing conditions. HealthCare Global (HCG), the largest provider of cancer care in India, has adopted Teams Virtual Consult, which allows doctors to schedule and conduct virtual consultations.

So, a lot of progress has been made. However, I think we are being extraordinarily generous to ourselves if we believe that we have already brought about transformation. We will need to go all the way from response to recovery and then to re-imagining. In reality, we have so far just enabled new ways of working that create continuity. Transformation will be a future step.

Q9: How do you envision this transformation going forward?

To move ahead, organizations are focusing on their resilience and economic recovery today while concurrently building for tomorrow. There are many other aspects of resilience. For instance, remote operations and the strategic use of data can sustain supply chains and enable business continuity. Beyond that, there can also be a complete rethinking of business models that reinvent services, customer experiences, and partnerships in the long run.

Another aspect of resilience is skilling. As workplaces become more digital and virtual, what reskilling, or upskilling will today’s employees need to stay productive tomorrow? Organizations that prioritize strategic thinking about the upskilling and health of their employees, as well as cultural transformation and people-centric leadership, will be better equipped for this future.

And, of course, technology itself must be resilient. None of the changes we’ve have talked about can happen if people do not trust technology or the companies that provide it. That’s why issues of security and privacy are paramount along with ethical approaches to new developments, such as artificial intelligence and big data.

Lastly, I want to talk about personal resilience when it comes to loneliness and mental health. Humans are intrinsically social animals. From expanding our childcare leave to increasing mental health programs, we at Microsoft want to be sure we’re giving our employees enough support. And I know many other companies are doing the same.

It all starts with Microsoft’s mission: To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

Q10: Finally, how will transformation help with the way forward to recovery? 

Transformation will accelerate in the coming months. It has moved from being a desirable outcome for the future to an essential outcome that is needed now.

So, we are seeing companies and institutions adopting technology that they had previously never planned to have. Before the pandemic, could you have imagined that a parliament – with all its procedures and security requirements – would be debating and passing laws virtually using Microsoft 365 with Teams? But it is happening in the Maldives right now. In Japan, a number of civil courts have also started to use Teams in their hearings.

Before the lockdowns, no educational institution or school would have dreamt of creating entirely virtual classrooms with virtual lessons and exams. So, there are new possibilities out there, maybe a whole new approach to education. Anyone in the world might one day be able to gain virtual access to first-class educators from different universities or independent teachers. Maybe a student won’t graduate from, say, Harvard or Oxford, but from courses offered by ten or so leading professors around the world. This could make education more inclusive and potentially available to everyone.

It is happening in businesses, too. Right now, organizations across all sorts of different sectors in Asia are using technology to deal with the impacts of COVID-19. Our shared response to the crisis is creating new forms of resilience. One of our healthcare customers, Zuellig Pharma, has undergone an almost overnight transformation. It’s using new cloud-based solutions to make sure vital drugs and medical supplies get to patients despite quarantines and other logistical restrictions. In Sri Lanka, tea auctions are being held virtually in the cloud because social distancing means buyers and sellers can no longer meet safely and make deals in person. It’s a big switch that has saved a 150-year-old industry from collapse and protected lots of jobs.

During these challenging times, it is truly humbling to have an opportunity to deliver on Microsoft’s mission of empowering people and organizations everywhere. We are working hard to support organizational resilience and economic recovery today. And we are already building for tomorrow with our inspiring customers and partners.

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