Interview: Microsoft's chief operating officer, Kevin Turner

Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer, shares his views on what makes a successful IT manager.

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"You are the deputy technology editor?" asks Microsoft's third in command, Kevin Turner, as he inspects my business card. The chief operating officer of Microsoft may have been expecting someone more senior to conduct the interview. Given that his diary of appointments for the day includes meetings with the government's chief information officer John Suffolk and the IT chief of the London Stock Exchange, this is perhaps understandable.

Along with Gates, Ballmer and five other senior executives, Turner heads the team that sets Microsoft's strategy. When he joined the software giant as chief operating officer in 2005, Turner was offered a £3.5m golden handshake, £8.5m in shares and a starting salary of £287,000 for overseeing the internal IT for Microsoft's 78,000 employees around the world.

Before taking the Redmond helm, he worked nearly 20 years at American retail giant Wal-Mart, where he became chief information officer. Given his breadth of experience, as well as the standard of CVs that float across his desk, I ask him what makes a strong IT manager in today's job market.

"I think it is somebody who is a good businessperson first, and a good technologist second. Every CEO wants to know four things: how do you save me time, how do you save me money, how do you make me more productive, and how do you help me grow my business?"

For Turner, the IT manager who understands enough about the business and can introduce technology in way that answers each of those four questions will be successful. This is attributable to Turner's belief that the role of technology in business has itself changed from being a mere cost of operation to being something that enables companies to work smarter than their competitors.

For those beginning their careers, particularly in smaller companies where technology might not be as valued, does Turner think that IT managers have to become better at shouting about their successes? Do IT managers need better public relations skills to advance their careers?

"I do not subscribe to being a great public relations person internally. The best selling you can do is to create business value, let your successes speak for themselves, make your customers your heroes and make your developers your heroes. People will know where it comes from."

Turner says IT managers should not feel that the weight of the world rests on their shoulders. Nothing of significance is ever done alone. Part of being successful is being able to get things done with other people, he says. This is one of the qualities he looks for when interviewing candidates for senior manager roles at Microsoft.

The key question, though, that Turner asks when hiring is whether would he enjoy working for the person he is interviewing? If the answer is "no", he will say no to the hire.

If the answer is "yes", Turner works through his list of criteria. At the moment, he is mentoring several dozen managers - informally and formally. "There are a number that get mentoring whether they are my student or not. There are quite a number of those," he jokes.

What he encourages those he oversees to do is to be authentic. "All of us need role models. All of us need mentors and people we can learn something from. The key thing is to be authentic. Do not try and be someone you are not. Instead, take the best [qualities] of that person and internalise it for yourself to be the best person you can be."

For Turner, everyone he instructs has something unique to offer and he sees his job - and the role of the IT manager, ultimately - as being able to trigger that spark in other people.

Giving advice is all well and good, but what is the hardest lesson Turner has had to learn as a manager, and how does he feel it has helped him grow in his role?

"I think the hardest lesson for me as a manager is that whatever helped you become successful to get to one level, it generally does not help you get to the next level."

For example, when you go from managing a team of 10 or 20 people to managing a team of 200, what served you well in managing that smaller team will not serve you well in managing the larger team, he said. Learning to leave behind those traits that made you a success before, but that do not in a new role, is difficult to do and requires the humility to learn and revise your outlook.

"None of us have all the answers. None of us have it all figured out. Leadership is a journey, not a destination," Turner says.



This was last published in April 2008

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