“Every 6 months, we ask everyone the same question: “are you happy where you are or do you crave something new?””

An interview with Microsoft’s HR Director Belux Elke Willaert about organizational agility, a learning mindset, a growth habit and fluid teams.

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October 17, 2019
Team Engagement

I have always been fascinated by how companies organize their innovation, especially by what methods they use to stimulate a learning mindset and agility in their teams. One of the approaches that you often hear or read about is the practice of fluid teams and regularly switching people around in the organization. But articles and blogs about this often remain very theoretical and I found very little hands-on company cases in the matter. Which is why I was absolutely thrilled when Leslie Cottenjé, co-founder and CEO of of Hello Customer told me that Microsoft is a fervent fan of this type of ‘habit’ and brought me in contact with Microsoft’s wonderful HR Director Belux, Elke Willaert. What I learned from Elke is that - if you want structural HR mobility to work - you need a psychologically safe environment as well as a healthy domino process.

A healthy domino effect

First of all, an internal position switch always impacts 2 parties: there’s the individual employee leaving on the one hand and his or her manager and teammates that stay behind on the other. Now, it’s only logical that a manager will never be ‘happy’ if a talented employee leaves, even if it’s within the same company. So it’s important that the individual employee feels safe enough to break the message of his or her internal departure to the manager and – even more crucial – that there is a “healthy domino effect” inside the organization, allowing for a swift transition for the remaining team and their manager.

“It’s just really important to keep talking about options”, Elke told me. “Every 6 months, we ask everyone the same question: “are you happy where you are now or do you crave something new?”. And our people managers, too, gather 4 times a year to discuss who they think is ready for a switch. But it goes beyond that, we encourage everyone to keep the informal dialogue about these transitions forever flowing, even if it’s by making a casual remark at the coffee machine.” That’s what Elke means with the ‘healthy domino effect’: “if one person is making himself ready to leave, most managers will be prepared, which allows them to ensure business continuity.”

It’s important that people feel safe about their move

No surprise that, at Microsoft, this ‘hive’ of people continuously reorganizing and repositioning themselves across the organization evolved in the most organic of manners. “It’s not like we introduced official processes that dictate that everyone should switch every 3 years. This is a very natural process, that just automatically flows from the type of organization that we are. Of course, this dynamic is greatly encouraged now that our CEO Satya Nadella has joined, but it’s frankly not about processes and strategy. It’s about fostering a culture that focusses on a learning mindset and a growth habit.”

When I asked Elke what triggered this approach she told me two things: it was driven by a deeply rooted customer obsession and stimulating employees to be on top of their game so they can keep up with the changing customer needs. But it was just as much about stimulating a permanent inflow of young talent, who value and thrive on job mobility. “We switch our junior profiles around a lot. Because that’s what they are hungry for. But it’s just as much about presenting them with the experiences and opportunities they need to keep on growing a lot faster than they would inside the same position. It speeds up their learning curve.”

Easy, right? Just keep the dialogue open and create a safe environment, and you’re good to go? Not quite. Creating structures, and a culture, where employees can keep reinventing themselves is obviously hard work. But the stagnating alternative just has too many drawbacks: bore-outs, lack of growth, very little learning, a lot less communication and collaboration and - perhaps the worst of all - top talent that will simply refuse to stick around. In today’s fast evolving world, “learning” - as in training but just as much as in job mobility – has become just as much a ‘currency’, like a paycheck and other fringe benefits. It holds the promise “if you stick around with us, we’ll make you smarter and more agile than in other companies; we’ll keep you relevant and make you more valuable.” So it’s not so much an option as a necessity if you want to keep attracting top talent.

Fluid teams will obviously not work if there’s no psychological safety inside the company, confirmed Elke. It’s crucial to instil a realistic failure-accepting mindset. People who often switch positions, will – at first – work slower as they are learning still and will make more mistakes. The value that will come with the switch, will only surface later, so it’s important that the ‘incubation’ period will feel safe.

Managing the customer paradox

And then there’s the customer paradox: switching people around in the organization, makes them more knowledgeable, more agile and more experienced. Which is greatly to the benefit of the customer. But if a customer has trusted contact at Microsoft and (s)he moves on to a different part of the organization, this obviously poses a challenge as well. “That’s why we have a ‘red carpet process’ in these cases in which we follow the transition process with great care”, explained Elke. “It’s just crucial to find a good balance here.”

I loved Elke’s vision that company culture is a work in progress, something that keeps changing rather than remaining a fixed vision and approach. And that Microsoft seems to be very consistent about this ‘flow’, down to this very habit of moving people around through their organizational design. “What we are aiming at is allowing our people to continuously reinvent themselves, keep grabbing opportunities and keep searching for what provides them energy. I’s about stimulating personal leadership, empowerment and commitment. And you can’t achieve that if they’re forever stuck in the same team, with the same colleagues, the same customers and the same tasks.”

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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October 17, 2019
Team Engagement