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Microsoft MD Pip Marlow's one black spot

02 July 2015

Pip Marlow 600X402

This year in November Pip Marlow (above) celebrates 20 years with Microsoft. Now Managing Director of the company in Australia, the upcoming anniversary has caused her to reflect on why she still loves her job.

It’s a windswept wintery Friday and we meet in the Microsoft’s head offices in North Ryde. The building, perched above the motorway and Epping Road, is very near where Channel 10 was once situated and down the road from Lane Cove National Park. Pip tells me her reasons for remaining in her job and involved are going to sound cliché, but “Microsoft is reinventing itself right now. All the work we’ve been doing inside, which has been a hard process, is beginning to show up on the outside.

“When I started at Microsoft it was the Windows 95 launch. It was the glory days. We’ve been through some tough times since, but if you asked me, would the world be worse off if Microsoft didn’t exist? I would say, ‘Yes’.

“There are 1000 people working for Microsoft in Australia. I want them to have the same sense of purpose – that the things they do and that the company does matter, and that we have a role to play in this country and the world.”

There it is, the cliché, yet she manages to make it sound exciting.

Pip Marlow was born in Palmerston North New Zealand one of five children. She remembers always having family around – there were a lot of first cousins - and “as kids, we played Murder in the Dark. It gets dark early in New Zealand.”

Like many a New Zealander she also jumped the pond, arriving in Australia in the late 1980s to stay with one of her siblings on his couch. Five interviews later she had a job with a small computer reseller in Ultimo and her high-school choice to learn typing over computers began to feel “a bit silly”. From an administrative job in Ultimo she eventually ended up at Microsoft, working in Australia for two years before being asked on the strength of her work in channel development to go to the US. She stayed eight years there and returned to Microsoft Australia in 2005. She has been country manager since 2011.

“My career development has been generalist in terms of the roles I’ve taken. I was guided by curiosity early in my career rather than planning. I’m the sort of person who’s okay to try something new. I don’t worry if I can’t do it all and I think that leaves me open to emergent opportunities,” she explains.

It was while in the US that Pip experienced a greater focus on career and career progression and began to think more deliberately about what she wanted. Then, on her return to Australia, and working with former Microsoft CEO Steve Vamos, she began planning in earnest: “We were in a one-on-one and he [Steve] asked me where I wanted to go. I was unsure and he immediately said, why not country manager? Then he got up on a white board with me and on the left hand side we wrote the job I was in and on the far right side, ‘Country Manager’, and began brainstorming how I might get there.

“Steve believed in me more than I did myself. He saw me in the role by the time I was 40, and you know I actually got this job four months before I turned 40 – not that the plan worked the way it was supposed to, which is interesting. He gave me such confidence and that’s a powerful gift.

“My advice and it is advice I was given: you are in control. If you think you can you can - and if you think you can’t, you can’t. It’s about believing in you.

 “Remove the constraints,” she counsels, “aspire to what you dream and go for it, because really, what’s the worst that can happen?”

Flexibility and self-awareness are other Marlow catch cries. When Pip failed to get the job she thought she had to get to fulfil her and Vamos’ plan, it ‘knocked her off her horse’ a bit. Not, however, it seems for long: “I took a good hard look at what I was good at and where the gaps in my experience and skill set lay and concentrated on filling those while taking on board the observations of others I respected.

“Everyone’s aspiration is different. It’s not always about going up. Whatever your plan, it has to start with aspiring to something and remaining flexible,” she explains.

Pip Marlow thinks and uses language in a way that is noticeably upbeat. She may not be able to control the glass ceiling but she can control the sticky floor. Rather than the metaphor of being ready in case someone is hit by a bus, she uses wins the lottery. She views work as a partnership, and that to participate in your own destiny you have to voice what it is you want and need. She believes authenticity, purpose, inclusion, trust and accountability are important in the work partnership equation and the transformation she’s witnessing in Australia right now –a shift in the paradigm – is very exciting.

For example, the desire to test, try, learn, fail, is stronger, and our appetite for risk has increased.   We’re also willing to see that everything that got us to where we are now is not the same stuff that is going to take us forward.

“As a country we’re seeing we are not just a mining and resources economy. Human capital is blossoming, and that provides me with a lot of optimism right now.”

The one dark spot in all this for her is the rate of change around gender diversity.

In and outside IT, this has been glacial and Pip finds it unacceptable: “Why should my daughters receive 20 percent less pay than if I had a son? There is good conversation and intent but not enough action.”

It begs the question: what has she done to tackle the issue?

“Diversity and inclusion are an ongoing part of what we do at Microsoft. Every manager is committed to putting in diversity improvements. We’ve done unconscious bias training and have mentoring programs. Every interview panel includes at least one woman and it’s the same for every short list for a position. Flexibility at work and a focus on output and not input is also important.

“I don’t understand why when there’s a conversation about quotas, the next one is on meritocracy. Why does having quotas mean we are going to drop the bar.”

When a recent graduate made the decision to go with Microsoft’s offer of a position, Pip says she was interested to know why the young woman chose Microsoft over the other offers she received.

The answer for this young woman was simple: “The woman who hired me reported to a woman who reported to a woman who reported to you.”

Through four layers of managers the young grad saw a path to the top that welcomed her - a path that she couldn’t see in the other places she was offered a job.

“When you’re in an environment and you’re the only one like you, it’s uncomfortable. I’ve been in many a room where I was the only woman and I know the difference between tolerance and welcoming. What this young graduate saw - by example - was that she would be welcome,” finishes Pip.