Five Questions with Chris Capossela, EVP and CMO, Microsoft

View from the inside

Chris Capossela, EVP and CMO, Microsoft

We’re in the middle of a pandemic – how has the world changed for you?

Job #1 for us was our employees’ safety and job #1A was making sure our platforms were available for our customers to be able to respond, recover, and reimagine their businesses when COVID hit.

A lot has changed in both of those dimensions from the employee perspective, especially since we shifted to a mandatory work-from home environment in most countries around the world. We have a very extensive crisis response system in place and we meet frequently to talk about how things are going and where we can welcome employees safely back into offices. When the pandemic began, there was a whole slew of activity that happened around employee safety and business continuity.

Then there was the work we did to ensure our customers had the support they needed to be able to respond. If they’re a retailer, we asked ourselves, “How do we enable them to do curbside pickup easily and connect their online ordering platform with their inventory, and then enable that curbside pickup with mobile phone interaction with the customer?” And if they’re a school, how do we enable them to go from being physically together to being 100% virtual? The work around Teams for schools worldwide has become mission critical for us so that we can enable educators to keep teaching kids. You could go industry by industry, and for every one of them, our customers needed to build their own crisis response capabilities and then build their recovery plan.

This massive shift has shown there’s also a really exciting opportunity to understand that when you’re forced to do something in a new way, you might actually discover things that are even better than the old way. That brings us to the reimagining phase. What if you could have all the students back at school – would you do it exactly the same? Or is there something from online that you liked and would keep?

All of our Microsoft events used to be in-person. We’ve now moved them all to 100% digital. Our most important developer event, Microsoft Build, used to host six-thousand developers in Seattle. This past year, we hosted two-hundred-thousand people online. When we had the conference in Seattle, 60 people from Africa attended– but when we hosted the event online, thousands of developers from that continent tuned in, got tooled up, and were able to participate. Even if we can go back to physical, there’s no doubt when we do our events digitally they are far more inclusive. They’re far broader, they reach more people, and they’re far cheaper for us to actually do.

By helping customers figure out: “How do we respond, how do we recover, and then how do we reimagine based on what we learned through recovery?” – that’s the light bulb that has gone off in our heads as we do it ourselves for our own business, with things like events or filming ads – and then we work with our customers to help them do it as well.

Has the way in which Microsoft listens to its customers changed?

One thing that’s changed is that we have moved away, or we’re trying to move away, from presenting to customers The Microsoft Solution. We’re spending a lot more time exploring with customers, and maybe even pushing customers, to understand their unique transformation vision.

We used to ask: How are you trying to reinvent your company? And now with COVID it’s: How are you responding? How are you recovering? And how are you reimagining? We’re coming to it more from a position of trying to better understand the customers so that we can engage with their CEO’s agenda.

For years, we were very focused on the IT leader of the company and trying to encourage them to buy our products. Now we’re actually spending more time with the IT leader and their peers, who might be a sales leader, a finance leader, a marketing leader, an HR leader, and the CEO. We’re taking a more comprehensive approach to listening to the leadership team to better understand their agenda and obviously that makes us far more effective at being helpful in empowering them to achieve their goals.

There’s more discovery and envisioning that we do together compared to 10 years ago and that requires a pretty different skillset than, “Hey, I’ve got Windows and Office to sell you for all your employees.”

What about social issues such as Black Lives Matter? Does Microsoft have a way of thinking about that or dealing with that?

I do think companies like ours can’t sit on the sidelines anymore. There is a huge opportunity for Microsoft to be clear on what our principles are and what we stand for and then to take action behind those principles.

The world is changing. Our employees want us to stand for the things that we stand for and to be visible about it. And our customers are asking us: What’s our stance on sustainability? What’s our approach to social injustice? It’s no longer this side thing; it really is very core. So We’ve had to get far more visible and far more articulate on what our principles are and the steps that we’re going to take to stand by those principles.

We had a massive sustainability announcement around being the first company to commit to being carbon negative – not carbon neutral but carbon negative. Since that announcement we’ve had additional announcements around waste and biodiversity and there’s more to come on the future of our sustainability efforts.

It’s a constant piece of work. We will be pushing on social injustice; Black Lives Matter is the same thing – we’ve had to come out and say we think we can do more. We do stand with the Black and African- American community – there’s no place for hate and racism at our company or even in our society.

So here are the commitments we are going to make. We are going to double the number of Black leaders in our company in this particular time range. in our U.S. workforce by 2025. We are going to support nonprofits and the work that they have to do. We’re going to ask our partner ecosystem – the companies we do business with, our marketing agencies, the law firms that serve us, the PR agencies that serve us – we’re going to ask them to get better. These are all things we feel very good about doing because they’re consistent with our principles, but we are going to be more visible about it and we’re going to report updates on it.

Sustainability and social injustice are just two things. We’ve been fighting for gay rights for decades at this company, for instance. It’s not like we just started doing this but we’re finding we have to do it more vocally and our employees really want to hear from the senior leadership team with updates on how each one of these things is going, and it’s not a short list – it’s easy to focus on what happens to be top of mind today. But when you consider the human condition and when you consider the breadth of communities we do business in, we want to support important initiatives in the world that we have a voice in. There’s no doubt that it is top of mind for us and we talk about it more than we did six years ago, without a doubt.

How do you approach the breadth of opinions on these sometimes divisive subjects?

Not every customer is going to agree with everything you do; not every employee is going to agree with everything you do. So, the level of sophistication of engaging with your employees and with their customers’ needs has to be very high because you want employees and customers to understand why you are making the decisions you’re making, and let them know that it’s totally fine for them to not personally agree with them.

It doesn’t mean we don’t want them to still be employees or to still be customers. It’s one of our big learnings – respectful disagreement, respectful dialogue, understanding the why behind decisions – we’re finding that creating space for these disagreements is really important because people come from all walks of life. They don’t all have the same point of view on immigration or you name it. But there are so many different topics out there that we need to take a stand on – because it’s important to the company.

What’s the overriding purpose for Microsoft?

We’ve tried to keep things really simple. There are all sorts of these high-level notions. A company can have a mission statement. They can have a vision statement. They can have a purpose. They can have values. They can have principles. And you can get very wrapped up in crazy frameworks of all this stuff. Our mission is 12 words, but the first word is really the brand essence that we’re going for, and that’s empowerment. The ability to say that has been very simplifying for us and we’ve really tried to avoid layering more on here.

If I could give a marketer a piece of advice it would be to fight that urge to add layer after layer onto these high-level frameworks and try to put yourself into the shoes of brand new employees just hired to the company. How many concepts are you going to try to get them to learn? For me it’s really culture and mission, and the brand is embedded in that mission. If we can get every employee to understand the culture and the mission then I think we’re in great shape.