May 4, 2022 Nurole logo
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How Culture and Communication Keeps Boards and Companies Growing | Former Microsoft VP and Non-Executive Director at Keywords Studios Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson

In his 30 year career in the tech industry, Neil Thompson was instrumental in Microsoft’s evolution from a burgeoning, B2B-oriented computer company to a multi-billion dollar market leader. As a marketing specialist, he now offers his extensive experience in building globally successful brands to the boards of promising companies looking to scale to their next growth stage.

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Neil on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

In the sixth episode of Enter the Boardroom with Nurole, Oli and Neil delve into topics at the forefront of board culture including:

  • Maintaining a sense of strategic consistency and purpose in a company experiencing explosive success.
  • Effectively employing board and company culture to accelerate growth at all levels of an organisation.
  • Establishing regional and national board dynamics to ensure key stakeholders remain informed and goal-oriented.
  • Countering catastrophic board-level obstacles before they arise through transparent communication.

You were involved with Microsoft from its early stages to its current position as a major global organisation. What was your experience with that journey and how did they manage to sustain growth from a leadership level?

Obviously, my experience of the board evolved as I became more senior within the company. I got closer to what some of those decisions were and the motivations behind them. One thing that I think was significant when Bill Gates started the company is that he had a clear vision of where he wanted it to go. That was always very important to Microsoft – a real clarity on where it wanted to go and why it wanted to go there.

That clarity underpinned their ability to clear milestones on their growth journey and then frame everything through a rigorous focus on data within the business to understand what was happening. It’s always been a data-driven company, and I thrived on that because I love picturing the world through data trends.

Lastly, I think Microsoft has always been ambitious about taking intelligent risks. Be it Windows or the browser wars or even the cloud, Microsoft has always understood the need to take risks to reap the rewards of the next growth wave. That ambition and willingness to take risks born from intelligence served them well in the 30 years I was there.

And do you think Microsoft had a consistent sense of purpose in carrying out its strategic goals?

To begin with, when I joined, Bill had a well-drafted vision of putting a PC on every desk and in every home to effectively democratise technology. So when you joined Microsoft you were joining a company that had a binding vision of bringing the power of technology to everybody. That really galvanised what we were doing and why, and it applied to all elements of marketing. 

It’s quite a broad statement in some ways, but I think it gives people a sense of direction in delivering on the company’s vision. The whole organisation could move in a similar direction and everyone could find their place within it. I think boards that don’t have that sense of clarity at the top prompt a much wider lack of clarity throughout the organisation.

You were involved in boards at both the regional and national levels of Microsoft. Can you explain the differences in the dynamics and roles you saw on those boards?

It’s important to understand how the company makes an impact in the country beyond its business practices. National boards ensure that performance targets are met, but there’s also the social responsibility factor, especially towards its own employees. Sitting on a national board, a lot of my time was spent dealing with social responsibility and governance issues versus the business performance side of things.

Though it was similar at the regional level, we were really trying to understand the pace at which different countries or sub-regions were growing and how we needed to adapt our strategy to look at national environments in different ways. So when I was in charge of the EMEA region for the Xbox division it required a very different approach compared to Western Europe. A lot of our work was understanding the nuance in bringing our different organisations towards the same goal at different speeds and with a lot of intertwining governance elements.

What are some of the questions you need to ask to identify and avoid some of these obstacles at a board level?

I think the key questions boil down to what it is we want to achieve, what’s really important to us and how we can lock onto that so everyone has a real sense of clarity going forward. How do we know if what we’re going to do has a significant chance of success?  How can we ensure that logic isn’t overly driven by emotion or passion? You’ve got to have someone in the room who can be really objective.

Objectivity is one of the things I’m trying to get better at on the boards I sit on. How do I take the passion out of my analysis of a situation so I can ask objective questions and not assume too much? The further into a company you are, the harder that gets because you become socialised to the norms.

I think what a good board does is have a diversity of opinion that really drives objective questioning and solution stimulus to attack things from perhaps a very different angle than the traditional approach that the executives will be attacking it from. My advice while working at Microsoft was that you need to be concise, numerate and objective. If you were those three things, you would go far in the company. I think boards need those same qualities to avoid making catastrophic failures.

Nurole Insight

Neil’s experiences at Microsoft prepared him for future board-level leadership by acquainting him with the importance of establishing a unifying corporate culture with a data-driven and objective strategic approach. 

Commercial growth starts in the boardroom and trickles down through key decision-making to incite change within the wider organisation. For board members and Chairs seeking to make the most of a board’s role as non-executive leaders, striking a healthy balance between objectivity and a clearly communicated vision that permeates a company’s culture can be a deciding factor in maximising a company’s scaling potential.

🎙️ You can listen to the podcast Enter the Boardroom on Spotify and Apple Podcasts to stay up-to-date on the latest in board-level expertise. 

Let's finish with a few quick fire questions...

One book every board member should read?

The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris Mcchesney, Sean Covey and Jim Hulin

Favourite quote?

“Love what you do; do what you love.” - Wayne W. Dyer

Favourite holiday?

Sailing a catamaran around Croatia with my family

Favourite app?

WhatsApp – it’s the only way to communicate with my teenage daughter!

If you are looking for senior executive and non-executive director roles, Nurole's innovative recruitment platform can help.

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