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How To Make A Microserf Smile


Steven A. Ballmer had an epic morale problem on his hands. Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) stock had been drifting sideways for years, and Google envy was rampant on the Redmond (Wash.) campus. The chronically delayed Windows Vista was irking the Microserfs and blackening their outlook. So was the perception that their company was flabby, middle-aged, and unhip.

Ballmer decided he needed a new human resources chief, someone to help improve the mood. Rather than promoting an HR professional or looking outside, he turned to perhaps the most unlikely candidate on his staff, a veteran product manager named Lisa Brummel.

No one was more stunned than Brummel. The 47-year-old executive is about as un-HR as you can imagine. She shuns business books (her taste runs to historical nonfiction); she takes the bus to work (using the 20-minute ride to zone out); and her wardrobe (shorts and sneakers) is in flagrant violation of the HR fashion police.

When Ballmer floated the HR job in April, 2005, Brummel said: No way. But Ballmer wasn't about to take no for an answer. Picking up a traveling golf putter, the Microsoft chief started taking it apart as he barreled around Brummel's office, hammering home why she was the perfect candidate. As an outsider unsullied by HR dogma, he said, she'd bring a fresh approach. Besides, Ballmer argued, Brummel was hugely popular and had the people skills to get the job done. The two went back and forth, with Ballmer slapping Brummel's whiteboard for emphasis and Brummel parrying with: "But I love doing products." After more than two hours, Ballmer ended the meeting. By then the putter was in pieces. "Sorry about the golf club," he said.

Brummel was deeply conflicted. She had built a solid career developing software, getting customer feedback, launching it, and then making revisions. HR was foreign territory. Yet she loved Microsoft and recognized the internal challenges that the company was facing. By the next morning, she had relented. She called Ballmer and told him: "I'm in."

Over the next two years, Brummel tore up Microsoft's HR playbook. In the process, she has begun to sculpt a new HR that is junking a one-size-fits-all approach for a system tailored to the needs of individual employees. In Brummel's HR, her people are supposed to act less like cops and more like concierges.

With Microsoft's dormant stock, Brummel can do only so much to boost morale. But her approach seems to be resonating. She has made the annual performance review more equitable, introduced new perks, including a service that sends doctors to employees' homes in cases of emergency, and won plaudits for making HR—once widely considered a shadowy politburo—more transparent and consultative. "From the beginning," says Julie Madhusoodanan, a lead software tester in the Windows division, "Lisa was all about 'We're here to serve you.'"

TOWEL TUMULT

Like many revolutions, the one at Microsoft began with a political miscalculation. One day in the summer of 2004 employees arrived to discover that the towels had vanished. Long provided in locker rooms adjoining the company's underground garages, they were a decidedly threadbare perk. But for the legions who cycled to work through the Seattle drizzle, the towels had become an entitlement. Now they were gone, yanked by some faceless HR functionary bent on saving, as one employee put it, "like, 0.000001% of earnings per share."

HR manager Anne Ensminger thought the towels' disappearance "wouldn't even be a blip." Instead, irate employees mobbed blogs and message boards. One post ranted: "It is a dark and dreary day at One Microsoft Way. Do yourself a favor and stay away." Inside HR, the rank-and-file rebellion was deemed ridiculously over the top. "It was like we were taking away 90% of their base salary," says Ensminger. But the vociferousness of the attacks shocked senior executives.

Management knew morale was bad.After all, many employees' options were under water. And Google Inc. (GOOG) was getting all the press as a paradise with free food and cushy perks. But Microsoft offered its own gold-plated bennies—free health care, for one—that actually put Google's largesse in the shade. Why was this not registering with employees? Why had turnover crept up from 6.7% in 2002 to 9.4% by 2004?

Ballmer needed to make a big statement. So he named Brummel HR chief and telegraphed to employees that she would be his consigliere of happiness.

STRAIGHT SHOOTER

With Brummel, Ballmer had the maverick he was looking for. From an early age, she was always giving things her own twist, like pairing yellow shoelaces with purple Converse sneakers in grade school. After earning a sociology degree from Yale University, Brummel also considered going to work for Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Tandem, and Ernst & Young.

She decided on Microsoft because on her interview she spotted a long-haired coder walking around with no shoes. "I knew I could be myself here," says Brummel, who has raised two twenty-something daughters with her partner. Brummel went on to earn a reputation as a superb leader in a company where software developers usually did the bossing and real managerial prowess was rare.

One of her first acts as HR chief typified her style: She cemented a reputation as a no-B.S., jargon-allergic truth-teller when she admitted in an interview on Microsoft's video blog, Channel 9, that she read the ultracritical Mini-Microsoft blog posted by an anonymous but influential insider. The admission gave her instant credibility among staffers, who were already glued to the site.

But in her first weeks as HR chief, Brummel felt as though she were flying at night without instruments. At first she was receiving about two e-mails a day from employees. "There was no communication with employees—none," she says. "It was a gulf." Internal surveys—which at most companies help inform HR policy—presented a picture of a happy, contented workforce. Brummel didn't buy the rosy findings. "People weren't connected to the company or our mission anymore," she says.

Brummel didn't want to follow the usual HR script: benchmarking best practices and imposing them on the company. "Before you go running off campus," she told herself, "you should know what's going on on campus."

So she launched a listening tour, holding town hall meetings from Redmond to Bangalore to London. Brummel half expected to be pelted with rotten tomatoes. In fact, employees were heartened that the Wizard was stepping out from behind the curtain.

Brummel started an internal blog to get people talking and created a portal on the intranet where people could suggest solutions to HR shortcomings. She held focus groups and mined her network of on-the-ground intelligence agents: the people, from managers to coders, she had come to know since joining the company in 1989.

Time and again, Brummel heard the same refrain: HR was a black box; it had to open up and get employee input. People loathed the forced curve in performance reviews. They wanted clarity on compensation, more direction on how to get promoted, and better managers.

They were fed up with the nickel-and- diming on creature comforts. How could a company headquartered near Seattle, home of all things barista, serve industrial-grade sludge in do-it-yourself makers that belonged in a mess hall? "The coffee was just really, really bad," says corporate Vice-President Chris Capossela.

In May, 2006, Brummel went live with a reimagined HR, dubbed myMicrosoft 1.0. She signaled her intention to offer regularly timed software-style upgrades that she hoped would keep pace with a changing workplace. "It's the same way we talk to our customers," she says. "We don't let a product live for 10 years. We take feedback, we make improvements."

Nothing got people buzzing more than Brummel's overhaul of the performance review. Employees dreaded Microsoft's ranking system for all the usual reasons: It pitted co-workers against one another at a time when the company needed to be more collaborative; it was unfair; it made frank evaluations less likely.

Here Brummel faced a political third rail. Ballmer was the godfather of the forced curve, believing that differentiation—giving a few people the top grade, most a pass, and laggards failing marks—was the key to Microsoft's we-take-the-hills culture. And when Brummel broached ditching the curve, it was his turn to say "No way." More yelling ensued as they darted in and out of each other's adjacent offices.

Microsoft has always had two rankings: one measuring annual performance and one that captures long-term potential. A forced curve applied to both. To get Ballmer on board, Brummel created a new system that preserved the positive aspects—grades and the chance for stars to win bigger paychecks—while canceling out the negatives. No longer would the first ranking—employee's yearly performance—be subject to the curve. Raises and bonuses would be tied to that grade. Bosses would have freedom to pass out whatever grades they wanted, making less likely the excuse so many of us have heard: "I really wanted to give you a 4. But I had the curve, so I had to give you a 3."

The second, long-term potential ranking determines stock awards. A terrific manager who goes to a struggling division might get a lower grade on the first ranking but would get stock for his or her potential to turn things around. "We still have a weird system that celebrates the individual devoid of the team," says Mini-Microsoft. "But now it's not so much of a knife fight when you're doing your best to defend your people."

HOUSE CALLS

Brummel won an easy PR victory by restoring the towels. But she knew she needed to offer more. One of her signature initiatives is Mobil Medicine, where the company dispatches doctors to an employee's home in case of emergency. The night before Real Estate and Facilities Director Susan Wagner was set to leave on a business trip, her toddler came down with a fever. A doctor was at her house within two hours and diagnosed the flu. "There was no way I could have gone on that trip," says Wagner, "if I'd been up all night waiting in the emergency room." Brummel estimates Mobil Medicine will save the company $1 million this year.

Sometimes it seemed as if Brummel were taking her cues from a certain Microsoft rival. Google gives discounts on hybrid cars. So does Microsoft. Google's restaurants use locally grown food. Microsoft employees can now get eats from some of their favorite restaurants—either in the cafeteria, where these eateries have set up shop, or delivered to their desks. Google has free shuttle bus service. Soon Microsoft will, too (with free Wi-Fi). Brummel also sorted out the coffee. Today 458 new Starbucks (SBUX) i-cup machines dot the Redmond campus. Some employees call the java "Brummel Brew" and circulate video recipes of favorite concoctions.

In May, Brummel released myMicrosoft 2.0. Based on feedback from employees, she made a number of changes, including discontinuing desk-side delivery of groceries, since barely any employees were using it, and introducing new ways to hold managers accountable for how well they lead. She hopes to begin tailoring HR to individual work styles and life stages, using customized benefits and compensation as a way of differentiating between the needs of Gen Y-ers and their aging boomer colleagues. She's considering satellite offices so commuters don't have to waste time driving when they could be working. She's also a proponent of working remotely. "I'm home for dinner every day by 6:30," says Brummel. "The office is for meetings."

Brummel also wants to do a better job of recruiting fresh blood and has turned the formerly drab, taupe-and-brown recruiting center into what resembles a hip hotel lobby complete with an Xbox lounge and copious snacks.

So how's she doing so far? Attrition is down from 10% in 2005 to 8.3%. The new performance rating system has not yet led to grade inflation. And employees, who give Brummel rock-star positive reviews, describe a more buoyant mood. Then again, her InsideMS blog, intended as a marketplace of ideas, quickly turned into a rant-fest. Some employees say Microsoft needs to do a better job of recruiting internally. And, of course, Brummel can't do anything about the stock price.

Still, in two years Lisa Brummel has achieved much. In what may be the most personally satisfying response to her efforts, a memo has been popping up on Microsoft message boards recently. It's a manifesto listing all the ways Microsoft is superior to Google. Its author? A Microsoft engineer who fled to the search giant and returned. The title: "Just Say No To Google."

By Michelle Conlin and Jay Greene


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