Microsoft lifer embraced risk and change to reach the top

Cathriona Hallahan: "I think Microsoft has realised that we need to be able to move faster." photograph: maxwells

Cathriona Hallahan: "I think Microsoft has realised that we need to be able to move faster." photograph: maxwells

Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 00:00

The new MD of Microsoft Ireland says an ability to multitask and a drive to succeed were key in her rise up the corporate ladder

Cathriona Hallahan is no stranger to high profile roles. The new managing director of Microsoft Ireland was previously the head of the company’s Europe Middle East Africa (EMEA) operations centre, the single largest organisation in the region.

But it took a lot of hard work and determination to get her where she is today, along with a willingness to embrace change.

Hallahan started out as an accounting technician with Microsoft some 27 years ago, and has worked in a variety of roles within the company as she worked her way to the top. In 2009, she was named businesswoman of the year by O2.

Hallahan describes her years of service as an achievement in itself. After leaving school, she went straight to work, and only returned to further education when she started with Microsoft, training as an accountant.

“Microsoft was expanding very rapidly back then. We were growing 100 per cent and we were adding staff,” she says. “I was fairly quick to multitask and take on new challenges to push myself; to not be afraid to experiment and take risks. The risks paid off, I progressed quite quickly in the early days as the company was expanding more and more, and was given new scope of work and new books of business to take on.”

Taking risks

That is one of the pieces of advice she offers to younger women coming up through the company now – don’t be afraid to take risks.

“I was sponsor for diversity and inclusion for Microsoft for the last number of years here in Ireland, and what you find is women are a lot slower to take those risks. They feel like they have to be over qualified for the job before they’ll put themselves forward,” she says.

If evidence was needed that challenging yourself in new roles pays off in Microsoft, it’s Hallahan’s own career. She has long since left the accounting role behind and held multiple EMEA-based roles, local roles, as well as global roles within the company.

It’s encouraging to see another female face in the boardroom of a major multinational firm, and it’s becoming an increasingly common sight in an industry that is often thought of as male-dominated.

On a global level, Facebook’s chief of operations is Sheryl Sandbergh; Yahoo appointed former Google executive Marissa Mayer as its chief executive. Closer to home, Vodafone Ireland has just appointed Anne O’Leary as managing director of the Irish operation.

But Hallahan says it’s still not balanced. “I know over my career I’ve seen it shift. Is it equally balanced? I’d say no, definitely not,” she says. “I’ve seen the unique perspective that women can bring to the boardroom. I think they have a different thought process, their style is much more inclusive, they like to listen to different perspectives before they’ll make a decision.

“This is a little stereotypical because everyone has a different approach, but often I find you tend to see that men will tend to be more driven in trying to get to the end conclusion rather than being inclusive and bringing people with them. When I think about diversity I think about styles, opinions, not just gender. It’s about having unique perspectives, bringing people from different industries into the boardroom that can offer a different way of looking at a problem, and finding a unique solution.”

New world of work

Part of Microsoft’s move towards what it describes as the new world of work is the ability for its staff to have flexible working arrangements, or to hotdesk when they are in the office. This extends to the executives at its Dublin base, and even Hallahan herself. She describes it as one of the biggest transitions.

“I spent the last 20 years in an office; in the new world of working, there is no office. You just come in and hotdesk,” she explains.

The policy was implemented by her predecessor Paul Rellis over a year ago, and has proved successful.

“It’s a great way of connecting with people. You see what is going on, it is much easier to talk about a particular customer engagement,” she says.

As a veteran of Microsoft, Hallahan has already built up considerable relationships within the firm. This has helped her in her current role, she says.

“A lot of people that I would have known over the years are in senior executive positions in Redmond, in EMEA. It’s made it much easier for me to pick up the phone and talk to any of the executives in different parts of the business,” she says.

“Microsoft is a very matrixed organisation so relationships are a big part of what we do. Having that level of engagement across the company is hugely beneficial, not just for me and my team but also for customers, because if we want to find a solution for them, having the right connections across the company to help has been a great benefit.”

But before she took on the new role at the beginning of February, Hallahan took three months out to spend time with her family, in particular her daughter.

“Family is really important to me,” she says. “I have a 13-year-old daughter who keeps me very busy. She’s just started secondary school; that transition for teenagers is an interesting one.”

But Hallahan is keen to make her mark on Microsoft Ireland as a company.

“I think the team are probably even seeing it already and I’m only a few weeks in the role,” she says. “Every leader is different, and I look forward to seeing what their perspective is in maybe six months time.”

Corporate change

It’s a time of great change for Microsoft. The company has battled with an increasing shift to mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, as consumers leave behind more traditional PCs. But now it is fighting back with its new mobile phone operating system, Windows Phone 8, and last year released its new touch optimised operating system Windows 8.

“I think Microsoft has realised that we need to be able to move faster,” Hallahan says. “Defining itself as a devices and services company was a huge step forward. Being in a services environment is very different to being in a product design and a product-led company, because having to think about what service you’re going to offer to customers really puts the customer front and centre. You have to be agile, nimble and innovative, because otherwise customers are going to go elsewhere.”

But despite the increasing competition, Hallahan is optimistic for the future of the firm, and for Microsoft Ireland in particular. The company is planning a move to a new premises in the near future, looking to create a campus-style environment. And the increasing scope of the Irish operation – it has been heavily involved in the creation of Windows 8 for example – is also good news for Hallahan and her team.

“We’ve gone from being a manufacturing low-end transaction type business to being really value-add to the company,” she says.

“It will be exciting, because I think there’s a lot of change and opportunity out there. It’s a very competitive environment and staying relevant to our customers is probably the biggest challenge, and doing that in the most cost-effective way that we can.”

CV Cathriona Hallahan

Name: Cathriona Hallahan

Position: Managing director, Microsoft Ireland

Lives: Wicklow

Age: 48

Family: Husband Tim, daughter Molly (13).

Something you might expect: She has been named O2’s businesswoman of the year, and counts Danuta Gray among those she looks up to in business.

Something that might surprise: Her daughter Molly made it to the last 30 in TV show Got to Dance.