Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

How To Use Empathy To Create Change In The Workplace
With Kate Johnson

Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo with the Change Catalyst logo and photos of host Melinda Briana Epler, a White woman with red hair and glasses, and Kate Johnson, a White woman with brown hair, glasses, and leather jacket.

Join Change Catalyst Founder & CEO Melinda Briana Epler with Kate Johnson, President Microsoft U.S, for a deep dive on how Microsoft is creating changes within the company by leading with Empathy.

We talked about:

  • Microsoft’s ongoing program to building an inclusive workplace
  • Leading with Empathy and how to foster vulnerability and courage
  • The need for top-down clarity on the company’s goals, values and outcomes
  • The importance of processes and data analytics

Additional Resources



Empathy is a superpower. And it’s, the common denominator for leaders and individual contributors in a successful organization and one that’s high-performing, and it’s so relevant to Microsoft’s mission.”

“Just trying to become a great leader or to change something without the focus on the outcome and the ability to see progress can be really hard. And so the mandate for us is no matter who you are in the organization, you see a gap between our house culture and live reality. That’s the gap that you’re on the hook to try and help close no matter what your responsibilities, no matter what your role is. So I’d say if you’re an individual and you want to do this, the first thing is the why. What are you trying to accomplish? And then the second thing is what skills do you need?”


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Guest Speaker
Kate Johnson, a White woman with brown hair, glasses, and leather jacket.

Kate Johnson
President at Microsoft US

Kate Johnson is the President of Microsoft U.S., a $39 billion subsidiary including all of Microsoft’s solutions, services, and support revenues across the public and private sector in the United States. Focused on driving transformation within Microsoft’s largest commercial organization, Kate leads a 7,000-person field team to pursue Microsoft’s mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

A business and technology industry veteran of more than 20 years, Kate was previously the Chief Commercial Officer of GE Digital, a division of GE focused on digitizing industrial businesses. Prior to GE, she held senior leadership roles focused on transforming businesses at Oracle, Red Hat, and UBS Investment Bank.

Kate is a leader, both internally and externally, on diversity and inclusion initiatives. She was recently appointed as a delegate to Microsoft’s CEO Inclusion Council, where she’s part of a select group of senior leaders focused on driving Microsoft’s internal and external diversity and inclusivity agenda. Kate has an MBA from The Wharton School and a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Lehigh University.


MELINDA EPLIER: Welcome, everyone. As you are joining, please, share and who you are and where you are and anything else you want to share about yourself in the chat. We would love to know where you are tuning in from. And as people are joining, I will also just describe the slides for anybody who is blind, or on the phone and can’t see them. This is leading with empathy and allyship. And we are at the end of season two here. We will start up again season 3, January 12th. You can learn more and stay tuned at changecatalyst.co/allyshipseries. They are all available on your favorite podcast platform. This is, of course, the video and podcast series, Leading with Empathy & Allyship, and the slide has lots of diverse faces of many of the guests that have joined us. You can learn more, again, at changecatalyst.co/allyshipseries. This is lesson 31 on the importance of empathy, courage and proximity in leadership with Kate Johnson President of Microsoft Us. This is created by Change Catalyst. Changecatalyst.co. And we have Kalina on screen ASL interpretation is sponsored by Interpreter Now. Www.interpreter-now.com. We have a code of conduct at tcin.co/COC. Just be kind and radical. We can take the slides down. Thank you for introducing yourselves. I see you Mary in Redmond, Washington. I wonder where that is. [Laughter] Laura in Texas. Antonia, Ellen, a recruiter for Sona type. Cecilia, good to see you. Friend and colleague in Montreal. Bonjur. Please keep using the chat. I love to see what you are all thinking and what you are working on. Welcome to Leading with Empathy & Allyship. This is a live event and podcast series. I am your host, Melinda Briana Epler. In this series we go deep, get real and explore tangible and actionable steps we can all take to be better allies and advocates for each other. This is our last episode of season 2. I am excited to share this episode with Kate Johnson, president of Microsoft US. Welcome, Kate. 


KATE JOHNSON: Thank you. It is so great to be here. 


MELINDA EPLER: On screen, we have Kalina, who is our ASL interpreter. Our interpreters are sponsored by Interpreter Now which is a Deaf-owned company we are proud to sponsor with. This is being live captioned by Maggie at White Coat Captioning. If you go down to the bottom of your Zoom screen and click on closed caption, you can see the captions and change the sizes of the text and stuff there, too. We also have from our team Renzo, Sally, Antonia and Juliet who are monitoring the chat so if you have questions or anything, please, ask them. They are here for you. And please, use the Q&A if you have specific questions so we can find them easily. We will spend to time on Q&A at the end of the session. In the meantime, please, share what you are learning, share what you are thinking about in the chat and hey, Amanda and Leva, Grayson, Bruno, Mary, Amanda, Eric in Trinidad — awesome. Great. Let’s jump in and get started. I always like to start with people telling a bit about their story and how they got where they are today. Can you share a little bit about how you ended up here as President of Microsoft US and doing the work you do? 


KATE JOHNSON: Sure, yeah. You know, I started off my career in tech. I was an electrical engineer by education. It was one of those things where I thought that’s what I wanted to do all my life. It was about 11 seconds into my engineering career that I realized I was a terrible engineer and, you know, I love solving problems but I wasn’t very good in the lab and really wanted to be in a place where I had more interaction socially, so I pivoted over to sales and I was there for about 11 seconds when I realized I probably needed a bit more formal training so I went back to business school. From there, I realized I don’t think I was ever going to figure out what I want to do when I grow up, so I went into consulting where you get a chance to sample stuff, and I spent six years in management consulting learning about change and driving transformation programs and that’s when I fell in love with it. All the roles I have had since then have been around change leadership. How you get a company, team, function or business process from here to there and what are all of the considerations that you need to bring to that story in order to make it happen well. You know, I had an opportunity to talk and come to Microsoft and I learned what the role would be which is helping drive commercial transformation for the company, you know, on top of the U.S. subsidiary. It was something I couldn’t turn down because I wanted be apart of the transformation story that we was writing for this iconic technology company. 


MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. And how have allies played a role in your life? As you have grown in your career, how have allies made a difference for you? 


KATE JOHNSON: It is really interesting you ask the question like that because when I think about it I probably didn’t recognize them as allies at the time. I think that world has evolved and taken on an important meaning that I didn’t necessary use a decade ago when allies were probably the most important in my career, maybe two decades — I have been around for a little while. Probably the earliest form of allyship was I had three amazing female bosses along the way. One was at a bank, one was at a tech company and another was at an industrial company. All three of them recognized gaps in my learning, development, connection, networking capabilities, confidence, you name it. They honed in on that and I am combining labels here. Manager and boss. Mentor/sponsor/ally. You can’t have one in isolation without this constant allyship underpinning everything. They were magnificent as they wanted to see me succeed as a female, as an executive, in a world where there were not a whole lot of females at the time and they did the work to be intentional and to make those connections for me. I have an enormous amount of gratitude for each of them and stay in touch as well. 


MELINDA EPLER: I think we need more stories and actions around women helping women, for sure. Yeah. So, along those lines actually, can you talk about your journey as an ally yourself? Yeah, I think, you know, I will say that often I suspect often when people see two white women talking about allyship they are expecting us to talk about white women being allies for white women and I think for both of us it is a lot deeper than that. I would love for you to talk about your journey as an ally there. 


KATE JOHNSON: My journey is recent. I am going to be perfectly honest. I don’t know that I have always been as aware of what my real role as a leader is. I am now at the point where, you know, any leader has to be, in my opinion, an Ally in Chief, and for Microsoft US I am the Ally in Chief. I came upon that conclusion over the past couple of years in embarking in this massive transformation that Microsoft is going through. I was just in a place where I had to bring in new leadership to the subsidiary and in doing so noticed that we didn’t have the connection across the leadership team that I knew we needed to maximize the impact of the team. One of my favorite ways to bring teams together is to focus on learning so I picked a topic. I wanted to go to Montgomery, Alabama to learn about the history of African Americans in the United States. We were fortunate enough to have someone have a connection with Brian Stephenson, the famed Harvard attorney who wrote just mercy ge he has been to the Supreme Court protecting the underserved and argued there five times and successful four out of the time fives. It was supposed to be an amazing day of learning and it turned out to be far more than that. It was profound learning. We flew there in our normal mindsets of individuals and when we flew home, we were a team that had learned something very profound together and it was really, for many of us the most impactful immersion in the realization of racism in the in our country. 


MELINDA EPLER: How many of you were there? 


KATE JOHNSON: 12. We spent two days there. The first day kind of learning from Brian. We had all read his book and the whole next day we went to all of the museums and the markers that he has implanted across the city. You know, it was big. For anybody who hasn’t been to Montgomery, Alabama to go to the Legacy Museum and all the other incredible displays of history of African Americans and Blacks in the United States. I strongly recommend you go. We flew home together and were going through what we experienced and there was just this remarkable connection. It was deep. I decided to ask Brian to speak at our sales kickoff. You know, confluence of events led to the fact that we needed him and he was able to do it. We got him on stage. And we had all of Microsoft US and our partners in the MGM Grand studio in Las Vegas and he entered into the arena and he got a protracted standing ovation. It was an incredible moment for me because I was like wow. This isn’t just about my leadership team learning about the issue of race in the United States. This is about the entire organization recognizing that we need to learn more about the state of racism and social injustice in our country. And so that was kind of a moment and the cool thing after that, you know, half hour fireside chat where he got multiple standing ovations talking about incredibly raw material, raw content, was that it opened up the channels of communication in the subsidiary. People were talking for the first time about the realities whether it was Blacks or African Americans talking about their life inside and outside of work and conscious and unconscious bias or whether it was a white person talking about learning about this for the first time, building awareness, or deepening their understanding and the strong need for allyship and for us to address this inside and outside of work. Those channels had not been opened before and we had not talked openly about this at work. I decided to take it to the next level and took the entire subsidiary to go see Just Mercy on the same day. We wented out 42 studios across the United States in partnership with Warner Brothers who were awesome in helping. We experienced the movie together as a subsidiary. It is amazing taking thousands of people to see the same thing on the same day. First time I had ever done that for sure. It took us to the next level. We hung around in the theaters, we went next door to cafes, we went to libraries, we went to conference rooms after that and talked and talked and talked about everything from our cluelessness to the epip — epiphany. Shortly after that, the world went into a shelter in place mode and the pandemic hit and we were all working from home. Then the world shined a light on the racism stage at the global level and the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and so many of the cases rooted in, you know, racism. All of us were kind of like we have just learned so much about it and here it is right in front of us. What can we do together? I made a bunch of phone calls to people around the subsidiary to say how are you? How do you feel? Tell me about what you are going through and then tell me what I can do? What does support look like from the company and from me as your leader? And they kind of pointed to this one thing which is we need to learn to have tough conversations and need to figure out what to do about them because we don’t have the skills. And so I decided to take it to the next level which was OK, how do we give everybody the skills of what Brene Brown would call courageous leadership? I called Brene and said help. I have 10,000 people who want to learn how to have difficult conversations and it is all stemming from the experience this year that the world witnessed and we believe if we work on this we can make a difference inside of Microsoft. That is kind of a long story about being the ally and chief of Microsoft US but along the way I learned a couple really important things. Number one, when we focus on a topic like that, we have to surround yourself with advisors, and they need to be people who can tell you the truth about whether you are really an ally. You can say you are one, but if you are not getting that validation from the people you are sponsoring or being the ally to, then it is meaningless. The second thing is there is an enormous feeling of, you know, satisfaction, when you take the measure of success off of yourself and you put it on other people and you say my success is defined by whether or not I can take this person or group of people successful. And that orientation for me is what allyship is all about and I kind of went through it over the past couple years at Microsoft in this role. 


MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Thanks for sharing that story. Maybe we could go deeper into, well, maybe, so you have a program that you have rolled out, empathy in action. First, can you talk about why empathy? Why center around empathy? Let’s start there and then we can talk about the program. 


KATE JOHNSON: Sure. I actually in my heart believe empathy is a super power and the common denominator for leaders and individual contributors in a successful organization and one that’s high performing. It is so relevant to Microsoft and our mission. Our mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. If you are going to actually empower a person or an organization to do more, to be more productive in whatever business they are in, you have got to understand their business and if you are are going to understand their business, you have got to have this ability to listen to learn. So often in our corporate roles we are sort of very action-oriented. We listen to respond. We listen to then say what our opinion is. That our belief is we know the answer and we want to get to actions as quickly as possible. Empathy is about listening to learn, it is about deep understanding so that you can continue to think about what the ultimate goal should be. So that you can position yourself to work with your partner, you know, with your customers, with your coworkers to drive to understanding and figuring out what the right answer actually is. And so, I really think that building empathic muscle at scale is one of the keys to unlocking performance and to unlocking our transformation at the company. You know, early on it started as a mantra, empathy in action. Brian Stephenson taught us something important. His formula for putting empathy into action, which I would argue he is probably the best example of an empactic leader that we have today, he says you have got to have proximity so you have to get close to whatever you are trying to understand. You have to be able to have a narrative and tell the story, right? You have to have hope because you can create a following on negativity — or I wish you couldn’t but it is certainly not one that the right people will sign up for. 


MELINDA EPLER: Not all the long term. 


KATE JOHNSON: Not in the long term, right. And then action. Like, what do you do once you have the understanding, the narrative and the positivity of what the future looks like? Those four steps. Proximity, narrative, hope and action are the key components of empathy. We started talking about that and practices those four components and then, you know, I told you the story of getting to here where we hired Brene Brown to teach us more skills. That was the next thing. It can be a mantra, but you are not going to get anywhere unless you have the skills to change the behavior. We put together a robust plans with the help of our global partners at Microsoft. Allyship training, management training, development plans, all that stuff, to make sure we are teaching the people what it takes to build an inclusive environment and one that is customer obsessed and has empathy for the problems that our customers are trying to solve. You can change behavior, but if the systems and processes of your company don’t support that, then the change wasn’t durable. Our hiring practices, our development plans, all of these things have to be lined up to support the new skills that we are developing so we call that operational empowerment or the operating system to make change last. And then the last piece of the plan, which is probably one of the ones I get really excited about, is taking our platform at Microsoft and bringing it into the markets and the communities that we serve. You know, we have incredible resources and a great set of values at the company and we care deeply about justice reform and care about access to health care. We care about all of these things and we are able to take those pieces, oftentimes when we are making significant investments and shape them to deliver goodness to the markets that we serve. Accelerate is a program where we are driving economic recovery in the post-COVID world by bringing digital skills to the citizens of communities that are most underserved. We are working with our partners, you know, in the chamber of commerce, some are customers, and many of them also very oriented toward trying to bridge the digital divide and making commitments with those companies to hire the people that we train. And of course, working with partners, not-for-profit NGOs that represent the underserved and have access to those that we don’t necessarily have. The three letter skills and operational empowerment and engaging the ecosystem and communities is really a way for us to build impactic muscle at scale so we can fulfill that vision of transformation. 


MELINDA EPLER: I am writing a book and I have been talking about allyship for a long time and talk about allyship as empathy in action. I think empathy in action looks like allyship and systemic change and you are really looking at both aspects of that. Fantastic. How — I have a few questions going deeper into that. One is how do you measure success? How do you measure the success of a program like that? 


KATE JOHNSON: That’s a great question because there is so many different levels. The first is, you know, we have pulse surveys of our people. There is like the inside and outside measurement. Outside measurement in the ecosystem engagement I think there is one measurement. It is not about how many people you train. It is about how many people are able to get jobs with those new skills. I focus on trying to measure that which drives my team crazy because it is really very hard to track in a community but we have assets like LinkedIn where we can actually track things like that. We are doing that. I am excited about our progress. We have a long way to go but, you know, the communities that we are working with are deeply engaged and interested. That’s one measure. We talk about allyship and when we talk about empathy and these new skills of courage training, there are a couple different ways we measure success. The first is we know there is a gap between our aspired culture that we have as a company and the lived reality of the people on the ground whether it be a manager, an individual contributor. If they are not experiencing all of the attributes of our culture, you know, sort of founded in a growth mindset, customer obsessed, diverse and inclusive, and one Microsoft where we are operating as one team, all in the spirit of making the impact, if that doesn’t sound or feel like what they are experiencing every day, I got a gap and that gap is typically measured through our daily pulse surveys where we randomly sample employees. We also have a big moment every year called Microsoft Poll where we have one of the most engaged workforces I have experienced in my career where we get rich data back on whether people see and feel a difference and ask important questions. Number one, do you think your leaders are focused on the right things? Are they actually focused on building an inclusive workforce for you? Do they believe diversity is important? And you know, we get a lot of intelligence because we don’t just have yes or no or 1-5. We have the ability to have comments as well. To me, that’s the ultimate measure of success. Are you, in fact, making progress, period over period, with that belief system? You are going to have moments where you are not showing any progress but you will also, I think, be able to really get a pulse on what the next step is based on the sets of results and I will give you a great example. When we went through the period of time from the fall when Brian Stephenson spoke at our sales kickoff through to January where we experienced Just Mercy together through the sheltering in place where we all witnessed the racial violence events, our MPS scores on this one question, does your leadership team think inclusion is important and are they committed to it, it went from — I don’t think I am allowed to release the numbers but it improved by 17 points, OK? It was a massive change. Then we went into quiet mode where we were building the plan for the next step of the courageous leadership curriculum rollout and we didn’t say anything for 45 days to maybe two months. Guess what happened? It dropped right back down to where it was, which really taught me something about the importance of talking about what we are doing. I don’t necessarily have to show that I have all these really complex problems solved but I have got to communicate where we are, what we are thinking, even if we haven’t made any progress period over period, you have to be intentional about sharing that information. As we, you know, focus on the measurement of success being how are people feeling and are we bridging the gap, in order to make sure that you are getting an accurate feed and building sustainable change you have got to have your communication plan vibrant and active and always on. 


MELINDA EPLER: Can you talk about the link between empathy and courage and why you chose to approach the courage piece of it early on? 


KATE JOHNSON: Everybody has their understanding of the word courage. You can go to the dictionary and it is pretty spot-on. I think courage in the context of leadership is really interesting because it is about saying hey, I am going to take the responsibility even though I can’t control the outcome, and I am going to do it in a set of conditions that are incredibly risky. Look at the market we are talking about right now. Holy cow. Melinda, the world is just crazy right now, right? So to be a leader right now, and say I will own the results of what we are doing, whether you are on the front line, back office, somewhere in between, it doesn’t matter. The fact that courageous leadership is about saying I will own the outcome, even though I can’t control it. In order to do that well, then you have to have empathic muscle. You have to be able to drive deep understanding of your constituents whether it is your customers, partners or coworkers or your team. I really think it is incredibly hard to disconnect the two. I think the third sort of leg of that stool is vulnerability. 


MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, I was just going to say that. 


KATE JOHNSON: Because there is just no way you can be courageous without being vulnerable. By saying I can’t control the outcome but I will take responsibility is setting yourself up for being vulnerable but with that comes the interpretation of what vulnerability means to all the various players so if you as a leader say hey, here buy assets of my liabilities, I have to have a team that can help me fill in the gaps you are being vulnerable in a grit great way. The people that join the team and sign up for the same conversation feel comfortable sharing their assets and liabilities and then you stand the chance of creating a team that has all of the right fixings for success. There are some things that can seriously trip you up. If you lack trust, if you lack psychological safety, the sort of empathy, vulnerability and courage triangle won’t work. But if it does work then you have, I think, the great makings for unlocking the performance of your people. 


MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, it seems like there is also a level of just having overall and making it easier for vulnerability and courage is the growth mindset and the openness to change and learning. I think that is so important as well. So, how does leadership play a role in all of this? How does Satya play a role in all of this? How are you holding yourselves accountable? 


KATE JOHNSON: It’s a great question. Here is the difference between this company and most of the ones I have worked for in the past. We have such a clear picture of who we want to be and it is a gift. It’s deeply rooted in science. You know, it is not something that is ambiguous and nobody understands it. It is all of the attributes of our culture that we sort of picked. Satya picked all these things and they are rooted in neuroscience and oriented toward the positivity and encouraging people and shining a light on the stuff that’s working and creating safety back from the places that’s not working. You know, that is the first thing. Our leader at the top, and his leadership team, created a crystal clear picture for who we want to be. It is up to people like me, I lead a large business, but, you know, I am kind of in the middle. I am not at the top and I am not at the bottom and it is me. I am the one we need to unlock to make sure that I embrace the vision of what we need to be, that I am picking sort of the things to do that will make the most sense to drive our business towards that goal. We know we can’t just paint the picture and say everybody go there. You have got to have, you know, all of the pieces I described earlier. You need to make sure everybody has the right skills. You need to make sure your processes support the behavior change and you need to make it all real in the markets you are serving. That was what I thought my job should be to make this a reality. I got to tell you. It has taken me a little bit of time to crystalize that vision and mission and by the way, a whole lot of help from the people who I work with. My entire extended leadership team has had a lot to do with shaping it because it is deeply relevant to our business but 100% connected to the mothership. That’s rare. We are really sort of enjoying the clarity that came from the fruits of our collective labor. A lot of times a mission or culture is hanging out there and you point to it but don’t know what it means or how you are supposed to behave to support it? We addressed all of that. It is like a gift that is accelerating the changes in how we show up in customers. 


MELINDA EPLER: And have one more question and I want to jump into Q&A. If you all have questions, please, drop them into the Q&A function there. You mentioned in your journey you did workaround change management with your consulting work and my background as well. How does that really — can you go deeper into how that shapes how you look at change? What to you think about — you have large organization you are working to shift. What are you thinking about? 


KATE JOHNSON: Back in the day, and it wasn’t a long time ago, we always talked about people, process and technology like the three somethings. It is visioning of what we wanted it to look like and what it would happen and you broke it into pieces and said for each of the three buckets what will you do? I have gotten to the place where I think that the technology, great technology is table stakes. You can’t — the conversation doesn’t get started unless you have a world class portfolio of technology. There are a couple companies out there that do. We are fortunate enough to be one of them. The next thing is process. Remember, business process, and workflows and stuff like that? Super important part of any transformation program. When you reinvent businesses in a digital world, it is not really about the process of like the who, what, the where. It is really about the business outcome and designing everything. We can help people reach their full potential and I am certain Microsoft will be successful in the mission — but more importantly, we will be the best place to work on earth because in order to unlock that performance, people have to show up as their authentic self. They have to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion, they have to feel safe and all the things I described are the components of the great workplace. We have been on teams like that. That’s what we are shooting like this. With the 10,000 people we have, if we have the experience, there is no stopping us. 


MELINDA EPLER: Jumping into questions. Have you encountered resistance to people while building change? If so, how have you handled it? 


KATE JOHNSON: It is usually a form of nostalgia. I haven’t experienced that. It is not specific for every person. We do it in the past. When you join a great company like Microsoft, you have to pay tribute to that legacy because if it, you know, bore the success that you are experiencing to date. I would say that most of the resistance and do you have the skills to do what we are talking about and that’s what you are trying to address. They feel as though you haven’t paid enough tribute to the way things were done in the past. They want to feel more of that moving forward. Everybody fears obsolescence or irrelevance so that sometimes makes, you know, keeping things going the way, you know, the way they want to go, makes it sticky. That’s what you have to address. 


MELINDA EPLER: Joseph asks and definitely we have learned in our work that managers are kind of the sticking point in the organization. What do you need for an organization to empower management? 

KATE JOHNSON: It is about noise and priority. So, the first thing is you have to have to really deeply understand where you are going in any sort of learning moment. We all know you have to hear something seven times to master it and that’s the same thing with any sort of change program. It is really hard when you have been doing things. It is about having, you know, a clear set of actions and activities and the associated outcomes and measurements. Then it is about giving everybody a chance to really understand it more than once. It has got to be a lot of time. If you are getting to the place where you have gotten rid of the noise, you have total clarity about what you want to do, and you are still not getting the desired outcome, you have to start looking at individuals and say did you believe or not believe, tell me the truth, if you can’t get to the truth, let’s look at your actions and do they support what you are saying and where you have dissonance there, you kind of home in on that in a very polite and productive and professional way. 


MELINDA EPLER: Got it. Exactly. Productive. Great. Amanda asks an interesting question that’s been voted up. Looking back at other companies or industries where you worked and didn’t see a culture of empathy and inclusion, do you think you could go back now and make some of the same changes you are working on at Microsoft or do you think you need a visionary like Satya and his management team? 


KATE JOHNSON: I need Satya, his leadership team, and this moment in time. It is existential and the impetus for a lot of changes. I also needed years under my belt. A couple things. You can only learn. I didn’t pick up my head and realize that leading in that way was my job. It is very different and I now have kind of enough confidence to go after a different kind of leadership which wasn’t always easy. But I have enough clarity to know that if I focus on the right things, it will directly improve performance. I wasn’t — 20 years ago I wasn’t there. 10 years ago I wasn’t there. I feel like it is a confluence of amazing things lined up. Satya’s visionary, his leadership team, this job is an incredible opportunity that I am grateful for every day, and where we are as a company and the market right now is putting pressure on us in all of the right ways where we have to move quickly and so we can and will move quickly. 


MELINDA EPLER: So, Susan, who is a good friend of mine and also my executive coach, asks what do you recommend or what recommendation do you have to an individual leader wanting to take on this personally as a leader to embody empathy and action? 


KATE JOHNSON: I think it starts with the — what are you trying to accomplish. The ability to see progress can be hard. Our spouse culture and lived reality is the gap that you are on the hook to try and help float no matter your responsibilities or roles. I would say if you are an individual and want to do this the first thing is the why. What are you trying to accomplish? The second thing is what skills do you need? Honestly, all of the language around allyship, all of the language around courage, vulnerability, empathy, you have to have a common language with the people around you if you were going to affect change at scale. You can embody this belief system and the values and knowing the right things to do and you can make a big impact in your personal life because I have as well. All of that is on the table for any individual that wants to. The question is how do you make that come alive in no matter what role you have? Whether it is an individual contributor, leading a small team, leading a big team because there are ways to make that a reality. 


MELINDA EPLER: What is the best advice a mentor has given you? 


KATE JOHNSON: You mean like ever? 



In your career. 


KATE JOHNSON: I had a boss without a doubt my favorite great advice was will you please walk around the block at least one time before you send an email when you are reacting to something. And I turned that into I needed seven laps. The suggestion was calm down, cool it, and I still think about that moment where we were in a conference room and she was like, you know, you would be so much better at your job if you just walked around the block before sending the email. 


MELINDA EPLER: It makes a world of difference. 


KATE JOHNSON: The other thing is picture your mom or someone you love reading your email out loud to your children — that is extremely effective. Read the email to your children while you sit at the table and listen. 


MELINDA EPLER: So, you know, having these — a hard question around as a woman working in tech who is a diversity and inclusion advocate, I very much appreciate how to engage the discussion with white men feeling threatened or attacked when engaging on D&I conversations. Any thoughts for the folks that are in that vulnerable and nostalgic place maybe. What do you do when they are there? 


KATE JOHNSON: I don’t have all of the answers by the way. I am thinking this through and learning with all of you. We are learning together about all of this. I am married to a white man and I have a son. I see it from a lot of different angles and views. I would say that the thing that we all have to realize is it doesn’t matter what role you were in when your world is changing it is hard. And if you don’t have the capabilities especially. Regardless of your perspective, regardless of your understanding of your privilege, when things are changing and you don’t necessarily understand them and certainly can’t control them, that can be confusing and hard and requires just as much empathy as the empathy that we are trying to give to those who have been underserved for so long. I am not saying that we don’t have a massive problem with privilege and a lot of work to do. Change is hard no matter what role you play in the storyboard, and understanding that and having great listening skills is very, very key to sort of disarming the conversation to get to a place of better productivity. That’s what I have learned so far but I don’t think. If anybody has the answers, please, call me. 


MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, I feel the same. It is really hard and really important to also show empathy for people that are in that place and to listen and to have honest conversations, transparent conversations, genuine conversations to get to a place of understanding together, yeah. 


KATE JOHNSON: Tell me more is usually the phrase I returned in this dare to lead training that I went through, that passes the baton to the person who is sharing the concern where they automatically start to write themselves into the story. Instead of ‘this is happening to me,’ you say ‘tell me more,’ and they start to lean in and tell you everything from their perspective of how they feel from the first person and it changes the game in terms of driving empathy. That is one trick I am using a little bit more that’s helping me get through these conversations, which are very difficult and complex. 


MELINDA EPLER: Very insightful answer. Joseph asks if you will be making any resources available for the work you are doing publicly? There is a couple of questions around, you know, how you are evaluating and if there is a way to get access to any of that. 


KATE JOHNSON: I think the best place to start is our diversity and inclusion report that we publish as a company which summarizes much of the impetus for all of the changes I am trying to make in my subsidiary. My guiding light and central row source is our D&I team, our chief diversity officer, and all the material she publishes. I don’t think we have gotten to a place where we are systematically training the world on all the things we are training on. We are trying to get it right on the inside but that being said, we do meet with customers every day on how we are this happening about our transformation and all of the stories, we do coaching sessions and we look at their plans and think about how that relates to the work we are doing together. Is it showing up on the projects? Anecdotally or not systematically at scale we are trying to provide insight into what we are doing. It is not like we figured this out. It isn’t like I have 10,000 perfectly happy people who feel like they have a deep sense of belonging every single day. I have got a lot of work to do. I just have a plan. That’s, I think, the most important place to start. Figuring out resources for smaller companies to make some same kind of progress I think is a great question and one we should research together. 


MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, yeah. I just have a couple more questions. What is — when you are looking to the future what is next? Have you thought past this and what is beyond this? 


KATE JOHNSON: I need to really just try and get this done. I don’t think there is a we are done/we are there. I think it will constantly be what is next level. As a matter of fact, I had a next level thing with somebody just yesterday to say OK, what if I am rolling out the dare to lead training so all 10,000 people at Microsoft US. We have to learn to have the ability to rumble, the ability to lean into our values, and you know, live them, the ability to brave trust, and the ability to rise strong after setbacks. Those are the core components of building a courageous set of leaders at Microsoft US. That will take me for the rest of the year. What do I do next? I am looking for methods and systems and processes to take our ability to connect as human beings to the next level and anything I do has to have this formula of my extended leadership team so hundreds of executives and then the thousand managers so a hundred, a thousand and then the 10,000 people, everything I do have to train the first person, tweak it, train the managers, tweak it and then train everybody else. These have to be special things whether it is thought leadership, pilot programs, whether it’s, you know, more skills training. Doesn’t matter what it is. That’s how I think through stuff. I am trying to figure out what the next level is which is already a year out. If you have the answers, please, send them to me. 


MELINDA EPLER: I don’t have the magic wand or the crystal ball, but I love you are thinking about it. Clearly, you have kind of laid out that you started with one and built upon that and built upon that and saw what was needed and you kind of moved to the next stage. I think that is in some ways a refreshing way of looking at it. It really is a continuous process of learning and growth as you go and building as you go. Where can people learn more about you, about your work? 


KATE JOHNSON: I try and write on LinkedIn. I don’t get to do it nearly enough but I am telling the story on LinkedIn. I am also noodling what I call daring diaries. As we go through the Brene Brown work and who I am experiencing and what are my epic fails because that’s probably where we learn the most so that would probably be the source. The other thing is if you are a part of a company where we have a relationship together, partner or customer, we can always get the teams together and try and make some magic happen. The last thing is accelerate which is that program that I talked about where we are really trying to bring some of this to the communities you serve. We are trying to bring together the entire ecosystem down to the individual and large organizations there is a role there. Hopefully, we can learn more about each other through that process. 


MELINDA EPLER: As we go into 2021, what are one or two words that you are going into the next year thinking about? 


KATE JOHNSON: Gratitude. I haven’t ever had a period in my life where I used the word more. I have an enormous amount of gratitude for everything that I have right now. I want to live my life sort of feeling that every day. This year has been terrible for the world. Just terrible. That has helped me kind of get to a place of understanding the practice of gratitude and the enormous impact it can have on me individually as well as those around me. As I think toward ’21, I want to just thinking about how do we connect everything we do corporate social responsibility and making an impact in the communities we serve. We have got a tremendous platform and bringing the things that I am talking about to the markets that we serve I think should be part of our responsibility. It is part of our responsibility and I am excited to start to show some progress in ’21. Wish me luck. 


MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Kate, for sharing what you are working on, sharing your wisdom and really appreciate you and the conversation. 

KATE JOHNSON: Thank you, Melinda. Thanks for the chance to share some of the ideas. I love your show and hope to see you soon. 


MELINDA EPLER: Thank you. Thank you. Everyone, I will leave you with this question. How can you put empathy into action today, this week, this month, this year? This is our final show for episode 2. You can RSVP for future sessions and sign up for the newsletter at changecatalyst.co/allyshipseries and please subscribe to the pod podcast channel and share this with colleagues. If you missed any episodes, you can go to our website and check those out. Thank you all. Appreciate you all and appreciate the amazing questions and your pres presence and look forward to seeing you in 2021.

About the Host

Host: Melinda Briana Epler

Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.

As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.

Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.

Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.

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Watch Melinda’s TED Talk

Speaking Engagements

Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.


The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

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