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Kathleen Hogan

When Microsoft’s top executives held their annual retreat this year, they spent the first full day visiting and listening to customers, something they hadn’t done before as part of that meeting.

The company skipped its annual employee meeting this year and held a hackathon instead.

Employees are going through mandatory diversity training to help them recognize their unconscious biases.

And in perhaps the most radical departure of all, company leaders are coaching their teams to stop interrupting each other.

“There’s been a lot more discussion around team norms, and how we can create environments where we do hear from everybody,” Kathleen Hogan, the company’s executive vice president of human resources, said in an interview with GeekWire this afternoon. “It’s amazing, but small things like that can matter.”

These are a few examples of the new Microsoft culture — or at least the culture to which the company aspires. The overarching phrase executives are using to describe the culture is “growth mindset,” as outlined this morning in a companywide memo from CEO Satya Nadella to Microsoft’s nearly 120,000 employees.

That means “shifting from a fixed mindset where your role is to be the smartest person, to a growth mindset where your role is really to learn and bring out the best in people — that’s a key difference,” Hogan told GeekWire this afternoon in her first extended interview since Nadella named her to the position last November, succeeding longtime Microsoft HR chief Lisa Brummel.

It’s a new era for Microsoft in more ways than one. The company’s business was built in the hard-charging, take-no-prisoners style of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, pursuing the goal of putting a computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft’s software. The company accomplished that goal, and then the world changed — Apple, Google, Amazon and others began leading the way in many of the key platforms for computing and online services.

At 40 years old, Microsoft really had no choice but to grow up. Putting the company’s culture on a new path has been a paramount issue for Nadella since taking over as CEO last year.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on culture,” Hogan said today. “Of course, there are a lot of other things that I’ve been spending time on, but I’d say probably the No. 1 thing with Satya is really talking and thinking deeply about what is the culture we aspire to have here at Microsoft.”

As outlined in Nadella’s email this morning, the company’s growth mindset is focused on being customer-obsessed, diverse and inclusive, and operating as “One Microsoft.” The latter concept is a holdover from his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, but the broader approach to the company’s culture is very much a reflection of Nadella’s mindset.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (GeekWire File Photo)
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (GeekWire File Photo)

“In terms of watching how Satya operates, I think that’s authentically Satya. He truly exhibits a growth mindset,” Hogan said. “This isn’t some platitude or something we’re going to have on the wall. This is something he wants to role-model and how he wants people to experience Microsoft.”

Hogan acknowledged that the company’s culture isn’t what Microsoft leaders say it is — it’s what other people perceive it to be. “My hope is if we put in place a lot of these things and we keep this constant drumbeat, that ultimately it’s going to be what other people are saying,” she said.

At the same time, “growth mindset” isn’t something that Microsoft pulled out of a hat. The company worked with outside experts and conducted extensive focus groups and studies with employees and other key constituents, with executives learning from each round and even using them to refine the language they used in this morning’s email.

As Nadella wrote in his email, “I believe that culture is not static. It evolves every day based on the behaviors of everyone in the organization. We are in an incredible position to seize new growth this year. We will need to innovate in new areas, execute against our plans, make some tough choices in areas where things are not working and solve hard problems in ways that drive customer value.”

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