Microsoft: A Case Study in Strategy Transformation

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR On Strategy, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand selected to help you unlock new ways of doing business.

In early 2015, Microsoft’s senior leadership team was facing a set of difficult decisions. The firm had been struggling to innovate and grow as fast as its competitors. Now, they were considering new opportunities that would yield higher growth, but lower margins like shifting away from perpetual licensing to focus on subscription sales.

Today, we bring you a conversation with Harvard Business School professor Fritz Foley, who studied this period of transformative change at Microsoft for a business case study he wrote. In this episode, you’ll get a window into how Microsoft’s leaders analyzed different options and got both investors and employees on board with a different idea of growth. You’ll also learn how the company’s risk-averse culture had to evolve in order to execute such a huge transformation.

This episode originally aired on Cold Call in July 2018. Here it is.

BRIAN KENNY: Electronics enthusiasts in the 1970s looked forward to it every year: the January issue of Popular Electronics. That is because that issue was known for featuring the coolest up-and-coming products in the world of electronics. And when the January 1975 issue hit newsstands, it did not disappoint. The cover was adorned with the first available image of the Altair 8,800, the world’s first mini-computer kit. It may not have been the shot heard around the world, but many say that it was the spark that ignited the home computer revolution. That very magazine inspired a young Paul Allen and Bill Gates to turn their passion for computers into a business that subsequently became an empire.

Today, Microsoft Corporation is the third most valuable company in the world and the world’s largest software company. But after four decades of buffeting the headwinds of the very industry it helped to create, Microsoft is at a turning point and the way forward is not entirely clear. Today we’ll hear from Professor Fritz Foley about his case entitled “The Transformation of Microsoft.” I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call.

SPEAKER 1: So, we’re all sitting there in the classroom.

SPEAKER 2: Professor walks in.

SPEAKER 3: And they look up and you know it’s coming. The dreaded cold call.

BRIAN KENNY: Professor Fritz Foley’s Research focuses on corporate finance. He’s an expert on investment capital structure, working capital management, and a range of related topics, all of which probably factor into the case today. Fritz, thanks for joining us.

FRITZ FOLEY: Thanks so much for having me.

BRIAN KENNY: So, everybody pretty much knows who Microsoft is, and I think people will be really interested in getting a glimpse into where they were at this turning point in the company’s history. Still a very, very important company in the landscape of the technology industry and beyond. So, I think people will relate right away to this, but let me ask you, if you could start just by setting the stage for us. How does the case begin? Who’s the protagonist and what’s on her mind?

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah, so the protagonist is Amy Hood, who is Microsoft’s CFO. She also was a student here at HBS at the time that I was in the PhD program. So, I’ve known her for some time and she’s facing a set of choices that really revolve around whether or not Microsoft should try to pursue increased margin or increased growth.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. What prompted you to write the case? Your connection with Amy obviously is part of that, but why Microsoft and why now?

FRITZ FOLEY: I think I have been struck by the transformation that they are in the midst of. This is a company that… I mean, it’s hard to remember this. In the early two thousands, the stock price was stuck in the 20 to $30 a share range. And there was a group of people who were calling for the firm to be managed essentially for cash distributions and for increased margins. And then there were some growth opportunities that the company faced simultaneously. So, there was a real choice as to what direction to head. And I think this is a compelling choice that many other companies face. So, it’s a powerful example for me to highlight in course I teach about chief financial officers.

BRIAN KENNY: Microsoft was the first player on this stage really, but then Apple came along and I think many people look at these two as fierce competitors. But can you just talk about the difference between these two companies in terms of how they manage their financial strategy?

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah, I can say a bit about that. So, at one level, they certainly are similar. They’re in tech space and in fact, many things that Microsoft was attracted to phones in particular, is something that Apple has excelled at. And I think that at the time of the case, they were quite different in the eyes of investors, I would say. I would say that investors still viewed Apple as having a lot of a growth emphasis of a commitment to innovating new products and solving problems that people weren’t even sure they had. Whereas Microsoft was the older, more established tech firm that I think, in the eyes of some, had become not a relic of the past, but less relevant when thinking about future innovations. And in some sense, the cases about how Microsoft tried to shed that view and become a relevant growth-oriented entity again.

BRIAN KENNY: And they’d certainly been criticized over the decades for not moving quickly enough to innovate and getting caught up in their own. And you think about IBM maybe as a company that faced similar criticisms getting caught up in just their size and the bureaucracy of the place. What did Microsoft’s business look like in 2012? Because that seemed to be the beginning of the turning point?

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah. I mean, it was one where there was varying performance across divisions. There was interest by value activist investors given the large cash holdings that the firm had. Obviously, their market share when it came to the office suite of products and windows, those were quite high. And they were obviously very successful in continuing to provide versions of that to a whole variety of users. They had emerging cloud business, but it wasn’t clear that they would win in that space and had really struggled in other spaces.

In search, Bing never got traction relative to Google. In phones, they were really struggling in 2012 right before they tried to make more headway in phones by buying Nokia, which also subsequently didn’t work out as well as they had hoped. So, I think along a series of dimensions, they were really trying to get some traction, trying to get footing in new spaces. And there were a group of investors that actually felt like that wasn’t what they should do. That they should just focus on Office, focus on Windows, enjoy the high margins that came with their on-premises server and tool business offerings. So, they faced some really hard choices.

BRIAN KENNY: And they were also, in terms of just the organization itself up against some issues, what were some of the things they were encountering culturally at the time?

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah. I mean, it’s a fascinating story from a cultural standpoint. It was an environment where there were high returns to showing that you were the smartest person in the room. Some of the stories that I have heard are a little jarring. I am not sure I would’ve survived in this environment. There were these very long mid-year reviews that took place and were incredibly demanding. It was an environment that was beginning to really emphasize the desire to be efficient, to be right, and in fairness to them, and Microsoft was coming from a culture or their culture came from a place where they were selling a product that couldn’t really fail. People had very high expectations for the performance of everything Microsoft provided them. And unlike today where there’s more room to update things through online updates, a lot of the software, it shipped and it had to be close to perfect when it shipped.

BRIAN KENNY: Actually, I can remember a time when the launch of a new Windows system was similar to the launch of a new iPhone. People were really excited to get the new system, but inevitably there were bugs and those were highly publicized, and so they fell under a lot of criticism. They were really operating under a microscope for a long time.

FRITZ FOLEY: For sure. And we’re keenly aware that time to fail in their products, which is a measure of how long it took for some product or process to break down, had to be very long. Otherwise, they would meet with a lot of customer dissatisfaction.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Okay. So, let’s move into the transformation phase for them. What was the fundamental shift they made in terms of changing or restructuring the organization?

FRITZ FOLEY: In my view, I think that they did a variety of things to adopt more of a growth orientation. And some of this dealt with their metrics. Some of it dealt with very explicit changes to the culture, and I think some of it also dealt with a realization that pursuing growth would enhance value much more than trying to increase margins and have large dividend payouts or larger dividend payouts to shareholders. So this was, I would say in the 2012, 2013 timeframe, we began to see pieces of this. And they also faced significant managerial changes at that time. That’s when Steve Ballmer retired and they needed to pick a new CEO and could have gone a variety of directions there. And by picking Satya Nadella, effectively we’re committing to more of a growth path.

BRIAN KENNY: Can you think of an example of a company that chose the margins path? And I mean, these are both potentially successful choices, but I would guess.

FRITZ FOLEY: For sure. And it’s a very hard trade-off to make. In teaching my MBA students and executive education students I’m always struck, when I ask them, “Would you sacrifice some margin for growth,” how hard that question can be and how many people don’t have much intuition for it. So, other companies did go the margin route.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Is it a situation where the margin choice is one that’s probably more comfortable and the returns are going to come sooner and the growth choice is a little riskier, and for a risk-averse culture probably harder to implement and you’re betting on the future? Is that fundamentally what the choice is?

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah. I think that’s a really good way of putting it. Many people find it easier to see the benefits that come with cutting costs and looking for efficiencies and worry that what may come with growth could be elusive. And in some regards, I have heard senior finance managers say that they had to earn the permission to go after growth. They have to get the buy-in from a group of investors who feel as if the senior leadership team has credibility in pursuing growth.

BRIAN KENNY: So, here we have Microsoft, an enormous company, 130,000 or so employees, something like that, large by any measure about to pursue an option that is in many ways counter to the culture of the organization. How do you do that? How do you cascade this kind of a change through an organization of that size?

FRITZ FOLEY: On the cultural side, one thing that they did was very explicitly dropped a growth mindset culture. And Satya Nadella writes about this in his recent book, Refresh. The story is, for me, very compelling. It’s incredibly hard to get any organization to change its culture. Whenever I’ve been a part of an organization that tried to engage in a cultural shift, whatever the tagline was, quickly became the punchline for a set of office jokes.

BRIAN KENNY: I’ve been on the other side of that. I’m the guy who writes the punchlines most often.

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah. So, you know how hard this is. And I think that they were very wise in picking Kathleen Hogan who had led one of the divisions of Microsoft to head up the charge to describe and roll out this cultural change. They brought senior leaders on board, and ultimately, I think there was a lot of demand for it that many people who were working at Microsoft were innovative engineers and a very creative set of employees who wanted to pursue growth. And when given the choice to move away from review processes and given the opportunity to go to meetings where they didn’t feel like they had to be exactly right in making a point, but could stimulate the beginning of a discussion set of ideas that could lead to something that was new, people embraced that.

BRIAN KENNY: And here we are in the age of the millennial worker. Millennials don’t want to work for the old Microsoft for sure. And Microsoft is competing with the likes of Google and Apple and other firms that are definitely perceived as open and innovative, and they want people with energy and ideas. So, they have to adopt that same personality, I guess.

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah, I agree with that. I think there’s a new buzz about Microsoft, at least among my students, they’re much more intrigued by what it would mean to work there and what opportunities exist to do some things that would be truly novel and have a big impact on how people get work done.

BRIAN KENNY: So, let’s go back to our protagonists. Amy Hood in the case actually delves into her mindset a little bit. She’s getting ready to communicate these changes to the financial community. What are the kinds of things a CFO would have to think about? Because I can imagine the financial probably is more comfortable with the margin choice than the growth choice

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah, for sure. It’s fun for me to imagine her faced with this choice really of, okay, I can go this path of growth, but if I do this, I am going to have to go to my investors and say, our margins are going to go down for some period of time, and you’re not going to like that. But there’s going to be some upside and it will take some time for that upside to show up. So, I think she needed to find ways to communicate or signal what that upside would be and how big it might be to the investors so that she wouldn’t lose credibility with them and would have the permission essentially to pursue growth.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Now we hear it all the time about the emphasis on the short-term, short-termism in the financial community, and people want returns and they want them right away. In your experience, are you seeing a shift in the financial community, or are the analysts getting a little more comfortable with this notion of you can’t always go for the margins, you’ve got to find some sustainable growth in the long term?

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah. It’s a great question. It’s one that troubles me or is something I think about our financial system generally. I happen to be probably more optimistic relative to many when it comes to how short-term-oriented, or really how financial markets aren’t as, as some might worry, or that concern about short-termism doesn’t resonate as much with me. I do think there is a big burden on senior finance teams to explain how value is created by thinking long-term and embracing growth opportunities. And in some sense, when I look at what Amy has been doing at Microsoft, I applaud her and her team for taking on that challenge. They quite explicitly set a target of a $20 billion run rate for their commercial cloud business, and once analysts had that number, they could begin to build off of it and get a feel for how much value could be created if Microsoft succeeded at pulling this off.

So, by having the courage to commit to that path and help analysts understand what the path meant, I think that they have been effective in pursuing it. More generally, I do worry that there are some analysts that simply take an earnings-per-share number and apply some current multiple and don’t think much about what the future will look like. I am hopeful that finance teams and organizations will play a role in educating analysts as to how they should think about the future, when growth opportunities do exist and are attractive.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. You mentioned earlier that you’ve talked about this in class, and I’m just curious, do the MBA students come at this differently than the executive education students who have been in fiduciary roles and organizations already?

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. Let me reflect on that for a moment. I think the approach is fairly similar. I would say that some MBA students are probably less aware of the constraints that capital markets may put on senior management teams to pursue growth. They’re less aware of what an activist who wants cash now might push management to do, whereas executive education students tend to be keenly aware of those pressures. If anything, I find that MBA students, it’s a little bit harder for them to articulate what is the case for pursuing margin for Microsoft in 2012, 2013. Many executive education students are quick to come up with lists of things that could be done strategically financially in picking leadership.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, it’s interesting. And anybody who’s worked in an organization for any period of time, going back to that whole notion of how hard it is to change a culture, it’s pretty easy to think of reasons why not to pursue that path. So, I thought maybe some of the exec ed students might come at with those constraints already wrapped around themselves.

FRITZ FOLEY: Yeah, I agree.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Fritz, thanks for joining us today.

FRITZ FOLEY: Thanks very much for having me.

HANNAH BATES: That was Harvard Business School Professor Fritz Foley in conversation with Brian Kenny on Cold Call. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another handpicked conversation about business strategy from Harvard Business Review.

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This episode was produced by Ann Saini and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Erica Truxler, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you, our listener. See you next week.

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