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career (as a future business leader)?
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Case Centre: CS-19-06
LBS Ref: 172
Jean-Philippe Courtois at Microsoft Global Sales, Marketing
and Operations: Empowering digital success
As Jean-Philippe Courtois settled into his seat on the flight taking him home to Paris from Australia in
September 2018, he reflected on the transformation of the Microsoft sales organisation he had
launched 15 months previously.
The overhaul was a proactive bid to make the most of a massive business opportunity: the migration
of computing to the cloud. But even though the changes had so far been accompanied by investor
applause – the stock price had continued rising even after hitting levels not seen since its 1990s heyday
– Courtois was well aware of the scale of the task and how much he still had to do.
The change effort was the biggest ever for the Microsoft sales organisation, and probably the company
itself. It involved more than 40,000 people; 26,000 of whom worked directly under Courtois. The first
stage had been a restructuring project. On a vast scale, the project involved hiring new talent,
retraining and reallocating existing staff, and letting some employees go – all to give Microsoft’s sales
teams the right skills to accompany corporate customers as they moved to the cloud.
The second stage of the transformation was now well underway. This involved moving Microsoft’s
sales organisation away from its historic command-and-control approach: the goal was to replace it
with a culture of learning and coaching, rather than inspection. The organisation deployed digital tools
and dashboards to generate insights into how employees worked and to enable coaching
conversations that would help staff spend more time with customers and less time on internal
On his trip to Australia, Courtois had come across further evidence of how challenging it would be to
create a lasting change in the working practices that had evolved during Microsoft’s long domination
of the personal computer era. He recalled an encounter with a senior Microsoft Australia manager.
When he had quizzed her on how she was allocating her time, it emerged that she was still setting
This case study was written by Professor Herminia Ibarra and Adam Jones based on public sources and interviews with the people
named in the case study.
London Business School cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion and are not intended to serve as endorsements,
sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.
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aside significant hours for sales forecasting – even though forecasting had been largely automated by
predictive analytics in order to free up time for customers.
As they explored why she was still devoting so much time to forecasting, Courtois ended up coaching
the manager on how to “say no” to less productive demands on her time. People were used to
managing up in a certain way – “pleasing the system” is what he liked to call it – and for years the
hierarchy at Microsoft had, indeed, revolved around manual forecasting and a proliferation of internal
Having been at the company for three decades, Courtois knew personally how strong the pull of
tradition could be and how hard it was to develop a new managerial style. Two thirds of the corporate
sales and marketing organisation were in a similar position to that Australian manager, Courtois
estimated: they were still moving away from the “old world” towards the deeper technical skills, growth
mindset and customer-centric working patterns that the company now required. “The key for me,” he
said, “is how do I empower, enable and help people detect those broken windows or outdated flows
in the process?”
Mindful of this, Courtois had been delivering an unchanging message as he criss-crossed the globe:
our work is far from over. For true cultural change, he felt that at least eight out of 10 staff had to
display the new habits he was trying to inculcate, not just three or four. “Mainstreaming is making all
of your people successful,” he repeated.
Microsoft under Nadella
When Satya Nadella took the reins of Microsoft in February 2014, he was only the third chief executive
in its four-decade history. Over the 14-year tenure of his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, the company’s
revenue tripled and its profits doubled. However, the company had lost its momentum. The stock price
had stalled as energy shifted to smartphones and cloud computing, rather than desktop computers.
Internal politics and risk aversion hampered cross-divisional innovation. Open-source innovation, such
as the Linux operating system, was not fully embraced.
Under Nadella, Microsoft adopted a strategy that placed a greater emphasis on cloud computing,
artificial intelligence and other burgeoning new technologies. With new acquisitions, such as the $26
billion purchase of LinkedIn and the $7.5 billion purchase of GitHub, the company quickly moved
beyond its historic focus as it also took steps to work with rival platforms and open-source innovations,
jettisoning its previous lukewarm engagement. Three leadership principles – create clarity, generate
energy and deliver success – provided the underpinnings for the way forward.
The centrepiece of the Nadella succession was his belief that a cultural transformation was needed
for Microsoft to thrive once again. Adopting a “growth mindset” was key, Nadella felt, borrowing the
terminology of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck; employees needed to be open to constant learning
© 2019 London Business School
and risk-taking, rather than relying on skills already mastered (a tendency Dweck labelled a “fixed
mindset”) in order to achieve failsafe performance and top ratings.
A former engineer and highly reflective individual who talked about the importance of empathy as a
universal value and preached the value of mistakes, Nadella reshaped the company’s top executive
ranks in his own image – a notable break from the style of his predecessor. One of those changes
followed the July 2016 departure of Kevin Turner, Microsoft’s Chief Operating Officer, who oversaw
51,000 employees – almost half the company’s workforce1. Turner was credited by Nadella as having
had a “tremendous” impact, “more than doubling our revenue and driving customer satisfaction scores
to the highest in company history.” He was also known as a manager whose operational rigour had
helped to define Microsoft’s command-and-control ethos.
Nadella split Turner’s responsibilities between two newly minted executive vice-presidents, Courtois
and Judson Althoff. Courtois was given operational command of the global sales organisation, with
Althoff leading on commercial business strategy. Having answered to Turner previously, both men were
now reporting directly to Nadella. Asked about his experience working for Nadella, Courtois said: “He
has a hugely proactive and incredibly connected listening [style]. So he’s with you. You can feel it. You
can see the body language. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a top executive or a first-line seller, he has
exactly the same quality of listening.”
When Jean-Philippe Courtois joined Microsoft in 1984, it had not yet launched its Windows operating
system, which was to begin its journey to ubiquity only in 1985. Courtois had recently finished his
studies at the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce, Nice, now part of SKEMA Business School, whose board
of directors he now chairs. He rose to become General Manager of Microsoft France in 1994, Chief
Executive of Microsoft EMEA in 2000, then President of Microsoft International in 2005.2
Asked about important influences on his leadership, Courtois vividly recalled his first business review
meeting with Ballmer as a freshly minted general manager for the French subsidiary:
I had a hundred slides I was presenting and it was very intense. I remember it was a
very small room and he is physically imposing. Steve was very challenging with me
and my team. I was not going to make my targets because we had to cut the prices
set by my predecessor by 30%. I really thought I was going to be fired. But, by the
end of the day, despite a forecast that was not great, he gave me an incredible sense
of encouragement and confidence. I ended up coming out of the meeting super
pumped up, and we overachieved our targets. What I learned from him is that you
can be intense and incredibly granular on the details, but what really matters is that
you leave the person in front of you motivated to go do more for the company. There
is no point having a big exercise in data if there is no real motivation coming out if it.
© 2019 London Business School
As Courtois took control of Microsoft’s global sales operation in 2016 – as Executive Vice President
and President, Global Sales, Marketing and Operations – he was aware that he needed to lead the
global sales team away from an “inspection culture” towards a more empowering and nurturing culture.
That meant evolving his own leadership style towards a coaching approach:
The culture of inspection is an easy one for many companies: you have numbers,
data, you’re hard-driven, you check, and you make some comments on the good, the
bad and the ugly. The art of coaching people is much harder.
When asked to describe Courtois’ leadership style, colleagues at Microsoft spoke of his passion and
prodigious work ethic. “I’ve never seen anybody work that hard,” said one of his direct reports. “He’s
passionate – very, very passionate,” added another. “I think he is one of those leaders that’s probably
had to make the biggest change in himself in the way he operates and he’s continuing to make that
change. He’s not a Satya clone. But he’s doing all the right things to try and change.”
Listening is always a first step. But then you need to create a climate that is really
supportive of people expressing themselves, which has been a learning for me. You
have to create empathy. That means you go the extra mile to project yourself into the
shoes of the person you’re talking to and really challenge yourself to keep an open
mind, instead of telling them what to do or giving strong opinions. You really want to
hear the best of their views.
A new operating model
In early 2017, 20 executives were assembled into two teams by Courtois and Althoff to make plans
for aligning the way Microsoft did business in the cloud-computing age. Soon thereafter, leaders from
Microsoft’s 14 international areas were included in the talks, expanding the group of managers
involved to 150.
From the start, one participant in those meetings, Rina Ladva, Director, Professional Services,
Microsoft UK, noticed that executives were starting to mimic Nadella’s inquisitive humility. Ladva
The level of vulnerability went up massively in the meetings. It went from quite a
command-and-control structure to, we’ve got to do this thing, but really, none of us
knows how. It was great to see that the pretence was eroding in every meeting. You
saw less and less people trying to come up with the answers and more and more
listening to what people were saying.
The person Courtois chose to spearhead the transformation was Nicola Hodson, one of the most
senior women in the UK technology sector, and part of the group that began devising the plan at the
© 2019 London Business School
start of 2017. The motorbike enthusiast, who joined Microsoft in 2008, was promoted from UK Chief
Operating Officer to Vice President, Global Sales and Marketing.
As summarised by Clare Barclay, her successor as Microsoft UK Chief Operating Officer3, the project
consisted of five key changes:
We changed the way that we did customer segmentation and we pivoted to organise
by industry. We invested massively in deeper technical expertise. We invested in
customer success and created a whole new organisation around customer success.
We reorganised the way that we built and sold capability with our partners. And then
we changed our compensation.
Probably the biggest area of transformation was technical. In order to have credibility as long-term
advisers, the sales teams had to become more technically knowledgeable, as well as better versed in
their customers’ industries.4 This was a “big bet” that required deep discussion of how to minimise
disruption by finding the right balance between hiring new talent and retraining existing staff, said
You can’t get from one place to another without a pretty intensive debate around
[questions such as] ‘Is it the right thing? Can some of these generalists become
specialists? Or do we need to go hire everyone from scratch? How much disruption
can we manage at once? To what extent should we be taking an approach of
migrating skills, even if we’re not 100% perfect from the beginning?’ Because, at the
end of the day, we’ve still got to deliver quarterly numbers at the same time as
transforming the business.
The bar was raised for technical expertise. Many existing salespeople had to study for externally
recognised certificates. There were 5,000 new hires; many of them coders. Much of the hiring was for
new ‘customer success units’, created to help customers get more out of Microsoft services, while
stoking demand for fresh purchases. Courtois explained:
In the cloud-first world, customer success is all about the usage of the services we
provide, every second, to millions or hundreds of millions of people on the planet. So
that’s a new kind of north star we have. We had to retool or reset the roles and
mission across the sales organisation.
‘Cloud solution architects’ were hired to staff these units; people with industry knowledge to understand
customer business challenges and deep technology expertise to advise a chief technology officer on
migrating to the cloud. Such people were rare and in demand. “It almost feels at times like unicorn
hiring,” said Derrick McCourt, General Manager, Customer Success Unit, Microsoft UK, who was
tasked with recruiting staff in bulk and at speed to the unit, which he was asked to lead. However, the
visible changes already initiated by Nadella helped attract candidates, he added.
© 2019 London Business School
Traditionally, compensation at Microsoft was based on revenues generated by licences sold. A big
sale early in the year might allow an employee to meet their targets without much additional effort. In
a cloud world, however, customers only pay for what they actually consume and Microsoft aligned the
compensation for their sellers accordingly. Courtois explained:
We measure how much and when our customers are using services on our cloud
platform. Are they using Microsoft Teams as a collaboration platform to do more? Are
they using the Azure Internet of Things hub to connect vehicles, like we do with
Renault, for example? That’s how we measure success. There’s a huge gap between
buying the technology and actually having people use it.
When the cloud accounted for 10% of Microsoft revenue, salespeople had a very low percentage of
their bonus tied to customer usage. As cloud revenue grew to slightly more than 50% of Microsoft’s
revenue, the weighting towards usage for all sales roles was increased significantly as well, with some
roles now being almost entirely compensated on customer usage.
The changes also entailed an overhaul of the way Microsoft worked with its vast ecosystem of partner
organisations, which included systems integrators such as Accenture and Infosys, as well as
distributors and smaller niche players. As explained by Joe Macri, Vice President, UK Commercial
Partner, business plans became more focused on customer usage and Microsoft became more active
in skills training for partners alongside internal employees.
Its architects recognised that staff would have to live through a period of contradiction as details were
fine-tuned after launch. Managers such as Ladva recognised the need to remain open and attentive
to their concerns during this iterative process:
I think there’s still a lot of situations and a lot of decisions that are made that aren’t
necessarily in favour of how we would like it to be. And so people get disheartened
because they feel like, well, you’re telling me to drive consumption, but you’ve then
given me these crazy revenue numbers. And actually, it becomes command and
control. Because once you set your quotas for the year, the numbers are what the
Empowering digital success
By January 2018 the Field Transformation Office moved to launch the next initiative, called
‘Empowering Digital Success’, to deepen the transformation.
The initiative had three pillars. The first involved moving from a culture of inspection to a culture of
coaching. “We hadn’t done an awful lot on coaching in a meaningful, joined-up way across the
company,” admitted Hodson. ‘Precision questioning’ had been the default mode, with leaders adopting
an interrogatory stance in meetings. The new tone trickled down directly from the top, according to
© 2019 London Business School
My take is that Satya had 80% to do with that, because he was now managing JeanPhilippe and Judson directly. I think he actually disarmed them a bit in terms of not
making them feel like they are not doing their job if they don’t have the answer. The
level of empowerment increased massively in the way that Satya was there to support
rather than judge.
“We call it ‘audio and video matching’,” another executive explained. “By Satya continuing to model
it, it definitely had a huge impact on all of the other leaders.” Vahé Torossian, Corporate Vice President,
Western Europe, for example, gave out awards for failures shared with colleagues. “You want to have
people feeling comfortable to speak up,” he said. “Having the courage to step up and share that is a
The second pillar involved the roll-out of digital tools designed to give a clear, real-time picture of how
customers were using Microsoft’s products and services, how that usage was changing and what sales
opportunities might be in the pipeline. This was another area in which Hodson felt that Microsoft’s past
record could be improved. The new tools included a dashboard powered by its Power BI data
visualisation software and the Microsoft Dynamics customer relationship management platform. The
more comprehensive metrics were a starting point, not an end point, in a conversation with one’s boss
or colleagues throughout the firm.
Mark Bedford, Senior Director and Head of Specialist Team Unit at Microsoft UK, offered one example
of how the metrics would help employees prioritise how they allocated their time:
In the old days, technical specialists would say ‘yes’ to any request to go present to
a customer. And there might be an outcome of a contract or not. Now, they have two
measures. One, how many opportunities are they associated with and what is their
role in that? And number two, how many technical close plans have they done?
We know full well, if you do a technical close plan with a customer, you are 70% more
likely to close that opportunity. So that means that the technical people have been
empowered to say ‘no’ to activity that isn’t properly clarified.
So, if somebody said to you, for example, ‘I need you to come and present Office
365’, in the old world they’d say, ‘Yes, I’ll present’. Now they� …
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