When you meet Microsoft’s Chief Security Officer for the first time – a man who spent over two decades in super secret intelligence and law enforcement before taking on one of the most challenging commercial assignments on the planet – you don’t get what you expect. You don’t get a tough, paranoid, bark-and-shout commander. You get a nice guy, who’s very smart and very interested in leadership.
Leading by Influence
I have no doubt after getting to know him that Mike Howard is very capable of barking and shouting commands when the need arises, but as he acknowledged during our interview, transferring to the commercial sector has taught him to expand his leadership style and learn to lead by influence. When I asked him how the command-and-control leadership style he learned in his 22 years at the CIA and at the Oakland Police Department translate to his corporate job at Microsoft, he says simply, “In the commercial sector there’s a lot more autonomy. But command-and-control – that stuff just doesn’t work here. Here I have to lead and manage by influence.”
As Mike talks about the lessons he’s had to learn in a commercial environment over the last ten years at Microsoft, it’s clear he’s taken them to heart. He talks about how critical it is to develop relationships, to network internally with your superiors, subordinates and – most importantly – the people you serve. This is how he’s built trust with all his stakeholders and learned that protecting the company must be done in ways that enable them to do their business.
Balancing Competing Priorities and Inputs
“What is your main job?” Mike asks himself often, and this question was a key part of his making the transition from the lock-down world of intelligence to the collaborative and open environments of free thinkers that populate the Microsoft campuses and facilities. His main job, he figured out quite quickly, is to keep the global network of Microsoft’s people and assets safe and to be a “business enabler.” He takes this clear and simple mission into every conversation where his team is constantly balancing the security culture that wants to lock everything up with the internet-dependent culture of employees and customers who need everything to be as open and networked as possible. This mission helped him guide his organization into balancing these priorities and cultural tensions as he oversaw the development of Microsoft’s state-of-the-art Global Security Operations Centers in the U.S., U.K. and India.
Mike’s view of security doesn’t just focus inward at the company. Under his watch, Microsoft security practices now incorporate social media. As a testament to this, he’s put himself out personally on Twitter (which is where I met him @MikeHowardMSGS) and his teams now integrate social media monitoring in their security practices around the world. Many in the corporate security world are afraid of social media, he observes, but he’s going out of his way to reach out to people who understand it. “Hey, the bad guys use social media and technology,” he says, “So it’s in our best interest to understand it, too.”
Mike has also learned the value of diverse inputs to leadership as a key to his success. He is intentionally building diversity of all kinds – cultural, racial and gender – into his team of direct reports because he knows this supports better decision making. One example he cited was how a woman on his staff brought much-needed contracting and business skills to his security-heavy team and helped them work more effectively with vendors and partners.
Leaders Must Self-Reflect
Learning these lessons has helped Mike become adept at providing guidance and strategic vision instead of just giving orders. “The process can be painful,” he acknowledged, noting that his leadership training didn’t stop when he got the big title of CSO. The continual leadership lessons – both informal and formal – provide him valuable feedback, which he remains open to. He cites emotional intelligence training as being very helpful to him in understanding where he can continue to improve. “You have to learn this stuff in order to grow.”
But ultimately, Mike says, the essence of leadership is what he learned as a young intelligence officer stepping up to leadership and taking in the lessons of a retired Marine Colonel. “Once you’re in a position of authority you become more selfless than selfish,” he remembers the man saying. Early in your career you need to be selfish in the sense that you need to think about building your own skills and experience base, but when you take on the responsibility for a broader team, you have to spend the majority of your effort mentoring and helping others become their best.
In all his various leadership roles, Mike has learned that leadership is an individual journey. “You need to take care of people, mentor them, and engage in continual growth and self-examination. You have to experience the change that is happening within you.”
Thanks to Mike for sharing his insights and leadership lessons with me and my readers.