The Most Important Trait of a Customer-Obsessed, Industry-Disrupting Team

When Paul Maher returned to Microsoft to bring the cloud to key industries, he first had to build a team that could elevate the mission from day one

Paul Maher is building the Industry Experiences team at Microsoft to be laser-focused on the customer. Photo by Gillian Fry

On the surface, it’s a bit surprising that the number one quality that Paul Maher looks for in potential members of his Industry Experiences team at Microsoft has nothing to do with programming or technical skill. It’s empathy—for the user. 

“We’re hiring a team that has a customer obsession—a customer-first approach,” says Maher, who is the general manager of the team. He recently returned to Microsoft after four years as the CTO at Milliman, drawn by the opportunity to take his experience working in the actuarial products and services industry and apply it to bringing cloud capabilities to that and other industries.  

But in order to build the team that could do that work, Maher needed to take a customer-first approach and find others who would get on board with that strategy. He looked both internally at Microsoft, as well as within his extensive professional network for people with a willingness to start with understanding the customer and follow-up by creating cloud technology that works for that customer.  

That focus on the user and on empathy is inspired by Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, who regularly speaks about the importance of seeing the world through others’ eyes. His book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, is “about us humans and the unique quality we call empathy, which will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before,” Nadella writes. The cultural shift he’s enacted at Microsoft is infused by the idea that true innovation can’t occur without empathy for the user, and that’s something that Maher takes to heart in guiding the Industry Experiences team. 

Maher looked specifically for team members who could handle a certain amount of ambiguity because part of the job of the team is to discover what different industries need and then build for those needs. He also ensured that his team is culturally and intellectually diverse so that each person can complement the whole of the team and challenge the status quo as needed.  

That ability to learn and be flexible is crucial to how Maher leads his team.  

“My leadership approach is to learn from experience, to make sure that you learn from your mistakes, evolve, and mature,” he says.  

Read more about how Maher has harnessed his extensive experience in his return to Microsoft: 

Returning to the Cloud 

View Maher’s instructions for building cloud solutions in our sister technology leadership publication Sync: 

How to Build Large-Scale Solutions in the Cloud 

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