The wonderful opportunity of failure when your boss has got your back

I just read this article published a little over a week ago in USA today in which Satya Nadella talks about how leaders need to not freak people out when mistakes occur and should instead give their people cover to solve the real problem.

Citing the example of how a Twitter bot (Tay) was hacked hours after it was launched in March 2016 leading to the project being shuttered and public apologies, Satya shared in the interview that his email to the team included words of encouragement: “Keep pushing and know that I am with you”, urging the team to take the criticism in the right spirit whilst having empathy for those who have been hurt in the incident, with the key being to “keep learning and improving”.

9 months later, the same team unveiled a new AI chatbot (Zo) in December which has so far (*keeping fingers crossed*) not encountered the same issues as the previous bot.

“It’s so critical for leaders not to freak people out, but to give them air cover to solve the real problem,” Satya shared in the interview. “If people are doing things out of fear, it’s hard or impossible to actually drive any innovation.”

And Satya goes on in the interview to talk about creating enduring values and being a curator of the organization’s culture. And he has indeed been busy curating, pushing culture transformation throughout the organization in ways that I have been tangibly feeling for a while now, not just from my manager but also from my peers.

I am in the middle of some pretty rough projects at the moment, dealing with many fire-drills on a constant basis. And whilst I do get hurled the occasional brick from a random frustrated individual from within the company, the leaders in my team and my manager have only continued to encourage me and provided cover from these bricks. And my team-mates keep telling me how glad they are to have me on the team focusing on dealing with the issues as I try and get resolved, one difficult issue at a time (well, okay, maybe they are also grateful that they are not the ones having to deal with the firedrills!).

Whilst I have always had a fantastic and supportive team from the first day that I joined the Global D&I team in Microsoft, I do believe that the timbre of Microsoft’s culture has definitely shifted. I have seen/heard my leaders now going into steering meetings to discuss candidly what went wrong, which means we have been able to spend more time considering the real problem and to hence work to solve for it and in the process have the opportunity to turn failure into insights and innovation. And this freedom to be courageous and authentic infuses downwards and sideways, giving all of us permission to fail, to learn and to improve.

When I was about to move to Microsoft 5 years ago, a leader in my previous company had expressed concern that I might stagnate in my career development given Microsoft’s culture at the time. Well, 5 years on, I have failed, I have learnt and I have improved, many times over, because my boss(es) have had my back all this time.

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