I spent this week at Microsoft’s annual executive planning conference where the senior leaders of the company laid out the vision for the coming fiscal year which starts 1st July.

The ‘’host’ of the meeting was Microsoft COO Kevin Turner who is now in his third year at the helm.  His imprint on the organisation is growing steadily and this particular event was a real milestone in his leadership.  Looking at the balance between ‘Leadership and Management’ in this blog, I have been intrigued to see how such a strong figure in such a prominent office would affect the balance within the company and that very theme of Leadership/Management emerged strongly over sessions.

I previously wrote how Microsoft achieved a solid balance across these two areas through the unique partnership between ‘Bill and Steve’.  But, as Bill moved to focus more on the software development side of the business and then on his philanthropy, it put Steve more front and centre in determining the balance.  Extending from my (very much personal) observations of that entry, I felt that the culture did shift even more strongly to a ‘Leadership’ culture especially in the day to day operations.

Kevin’s arrival brought the prospect of providing more of a Leader/Manager balance by introducing more operational discipline to the $40b machine.  Kevin specifically referred to this balance in his keynote presentations, “To achieve business excellence we must become great at innovation and operational excellence.”  While Microsoft has long centred on innovation, not just technically in its world leading R&D, but also in the entrepreneurial spirit of its sales and marketing organisation, Microsoft seeks to build equally powerful ‘muscle’ in its ‘Operational Excellence.’  Kevin asserted, “Many companies are strong in one or the other.  Microsoft has a huge bold aspiration to be both.”

A specific example of this balance is between ‘quarterly performance with long term profit.’  Reflecting its Leadership culture, Microsoft has typically focused on the latter.  Without being unprofessional or irresponsible, it was nonetheless willing to endure many short term set backs and endure long investments for opportunities that promised eventual return.  As long as the businesses remained on the long term upside (Leader) trajectory, less cycles were devoted to shorter term downsides (Manager).  Now in an effort to achieve stronger performance overall, the company is seeking to balance both more effectively.

A final highlight of the event was a motivational speaker Dr. John Maxwell who addressed the group on the ‘5 Levels of Leadership.’  A compelling model told in a charismatic style.  And during his presentation he made a number of Leader/Manager references.

His comment, “Managers solve problems; Leaders create momentum” is very much aligned to the Upside/Downside model of Leader/Manager.  But his comment, “Managers lead everyone the same;  Leaders lead everyone differently according to who they are” fell into a common trap I see a lot.  That trap is to equate ‘Managers’ with simply being ‘Bad Leaders’.  Somehow the term ‘Manager’ has suffered some bad PR over the years with Dilbertesque and Brentian connotations of incompetence while ‘Leader’ has assumed a more noble and heroic tones.  I think these tonal differences lead people to over emphasize ‘Leadership’ as the key to business success and then suffering an array of downsides which bite them in the butt.  Two steps forward and one step back.  Lots of applause for the Leadership taking the organisation forward the two steps, but then consternation over why they aren’t making faster progress.

With Kevin Turner at the helm, look for Microsoft to be making fewer missteps backwards and a recalibrated balance between Leadership and Management.