The people person at Microsoft


Microsoft’s varied career structure attracts staff from rival firms, writes JOANNE HUNT

LISA BRUMMEL didn’t want the human resources job at Microsoft. Having been with the company since 1989, she had carved out an enviable product management career as the vice-president in charge of products such as Encarta, Works and Office for the Mac.

In 2005, with Microsoft’s share price stagnating, Windows Vista in breech position and start-ups like Google making the Seattle software giant look all too middle-aged, Steve Ballmer decided he needed a new human resources (HR) leader to gee-up the troops.

“He called for a one-on-one,” recalled Brummel, who was in Dublin last week to meet 1,200 of the 90,000 Microsoft employees she now oversees. “He said, ‘I’d like you to run HR’.” No one was more shocked than Brummel. “I said ‘No, I don’t think I want to do that. I don’t think it’s for me’,” says the 50-year-old. “I told him I don’t like rules and I’m not good at them – but he said, ‘No really, I think you’re the right person’.”

Brummel eventually relented. The Yale sociology graduate accepted the role of vice-president of HR and is now one of the top six people in the company. HR departments can sometimes have a whiff of The Lives of Others to them – an organisational “black box” where the records that will influence your trajectory are kept, even if you have no idea what they are.

“I think if you ask Microsoft employees about HR here, they’ll say: ‘They’ve helped me to develop this or they’ve stopped me from doing that.’ I think it’s fair to say, we play both roles. And I think it’s right to play both roles,” she says.

Brummel speaks with the positivity one expects from a Microsoft executive but there is also a glimpse of her straightforward approach. “My job is to get great people into the company, to develop people to the next job, to talk to you about how you get evaluated and to find as many career opportunities as we can for you while you are here.”

With many employees too fearful of committing career hari kari by being truthful in employee surveys, how does she check the real pulse of the organisation?

“It seems like a simple thing, but I actually go and talk to employees,” she says. She reads employee blogs too, those hosted by the company and anonymous ones. And she goes walkabout. “Having been here 21 years, I have a long-standing network. People will tell me when they hear things that don’t make sense.”

Founded in 1975, Microsoft’s enviable profits – $5.4 billion (€4 billion) for the past quarter – come almost entirely from the Windows and Office software first developed decades ago. In the context of newer kids like Google, Facebook, iPhone, Kindle and Twitter, is the Seattle giant’s record of innovation still strong enough to attract the best staff?

“Do people want to come and work for Microsoft? Absolutely. No matter where you go in the world, we have to be the number one or number two attractor of talent,” says Brummel. “I don’t know if SQL Server is ‘hip’ or not but I know that people want to come and work on it I think the right people who can make this business successful in the future want to work here.”

Where Microsoft’s longevity does stand in its favour is in career structure. While the flat democracies of some newer tech companies might appeal to graduates, those eager to climb a ladder can be frustrated.

“We see people coming from Google or Facebook who say ‘it was really fun or it was a great experience’, but their managers are all new at it and they don’t really have a career structure,” says Brummel. “They don’t know what they need to do to get their career to the next step; they say they want to work in a place where people are going to invest in them.”

Brummel says the breadth of Microsoft’s activities is also a draw. “Our people say, I can stay in one company and experience multiple industries. If I want to work in the mobile phone business and then the search business, I don’t need to switch from Nokia to Google. For a lot of people that’s quite an allure,” she says.

Since 2009, Brummel has overseen the redundancies of 5,000 Microsoft staff. Leaving Microsoft is a process she says the company tries to manage well. “We spend the right amount of money, time and effort to make sure that we exit employees with the right kind of dignity and respect . . . we treat them right from the beginning through to the end, whether that’s retirement, a job elimination or if they choose to move on,” she says.