Microsoft Canada President Kevin Peesker on the Principles That Drive Him￼
Earlier this month, Microsoft launched its new Canadian headquarters in the heart of downtown Toronto. The expansion coincides with recent reports of Microsoft’s ecosystem’s impact on the Canadian economy, contributing more than $37 billion to Canada’s GDP and nearly 300,000 nation-wide jobs. Innovation and industry growth has been strong for the tech giant throughout the pandemic, and according to Kevin Peesker, president of Microsoft Canada, the growth is an essential step in empowering more organizations of all sizes and sectors to leverage the power of technology and accelerate national expansion.
Since joining Microsoft in 2017, in addition to his role as president, Peesker has served as corporate vice president and member of Microsoft’s global sales, marketing and operations executive leadership team—testaments to his business acumen and 30-plus years of industry experience. As this month’s CB Leader-In-Residence, Peesker discussed the transformative nature of the digital workforce, his journey as a business leader and some of the most important principles he’s acquired along the way.
When did you first set your sights on a career in business?
The journey for me started while I was a teenager in Saskatoon, where I stocked shelves at a local grocery store. I began to think about what it was I enjoyed about the job. I enjoyed customer engagement and being part of a much larger production. It was a perspective that made me not only pick up on things like efficiency, but it also grew my interest in technology—which for me has always been rooted in an innate curiosity for agility and pace. Early in my career, as things began to grow digitally, it became a journey of discovery. I always remind myself that a career in business is about reinventing, relearning and breaking away from what feels comfortable. While it’s not always easy, if you learn to relish it, that’s when really fascinating and unique opportunities happen.
In what areas of a company’s success do you believe strong leadership plays the greatest role?
While leadership is necessary in every area of a company’s success, I think it’s important to distinguish what type of leadership is needed. It’s not something that simply rests on a person’s title. Leadership of self is what we should all aspire to, first and foremost. This includes how you interact with those around you, respond to stress and find happiness. To take that a step further and become a leader of others, well, that involves coaching, not demanding, and maintaining a sense of care. Ultimately, I think there is a real opportunity for us to think about leadership holistically, so that it can permeate every component of a company by building culture and driving efficiency.
Throughout your career, you’ve held leadership positions across many disciplines. Do you find that you reflect back on those roles, including the shelf-stocking days, when making decisions now as an executive?
Without a doubt, and that’s a brilliant point. I think sometimes, executives are easily sheltered from what is occurring within a company. You find yourself in these larger roles, layers away from the front lines. When I think about some of the outstanding leaders in our country and around the world, who prioritize the connection they have with what is happening in their organizations, it reminds me that when we take action as executives, we have the power to bring clarity, generate energy and deliver success throughout the entire company. It’s an absolute requirement as a leader to activate empowerment throughout the organization. I understand that people seek ownership and agency over what they do, versus simply being told what to do. Experiencing that need myself has made it very clear what factors in an organization can generate that agency. It’s about building the right culture, shared accountability for the company’s outcomes and creating a relationship with the society in which we operate.
What has been the most significant milestone you’ve reached since joining Microsoft?
There are so many elements that I am incredibly proud of, but I think they all connect to one core principle: to truly deepen our understanding of what it means to be a value to others.
Our mission at Microsoft is very purpose-driven, which is to empower the human desire to achieve more. It’s easy to espouse things of that nature, but having seen and executed the ways this purpose has come to life is the most gratifying achievement of my career. Examples include working with BC Cancer to build a global genomics database and sharing that database with researchers around the world, to working with the government on communication technology during the pandemic and allowing them to co-collaborate from their homes. These were shining moments where our principles of purpose were put into practice and I couldn’t have been more proud.
Are there ways in which the Canadian tech market differs from others around the world?
I believe there is. I’ve seen areas where Canada is lagging and other areas where we are at the forefront, and I believe this is because we, as a country, are a bit too risk-averse and conservative in our investment decisions. Our application of technology is behind that of others, including the United States and many regions of Asia and Europe. It’s important that the capital markets within our borders begin to recognize the innovations coming out of our start-up community, a group we work with frequently, in the same ways that the rest of the world has. We’re leading the development of artificial intelligence, for example, but falling behind when it comes to actually applying it into our businesses. On the positive side, what is incredible is the capability that we have through our higher education system. We’re producing world-class talent and we’re seeing this at scale where areas like Calgary and Toronto are receiving significant investments. Needless to say, Canada’s tech market has an infinite amount of potential.
In an industry with fierce competition, how does brand identity play a role in Microsoft’s success?
I think brand identity is critical; it’s something that sets us apart from competition and establishes what we stand for. Especially in the tech industry, it can be what attracts or detracts talent from joining our team—and there’s nothing more important than positioning Microsoft as an attractive company to work with. Our brand position is uniquely defined by our mission, the north star that guides us: respect, integrity and accountability. They’re big words when you start to break them down, but when it comes to operating from a place that considers these three principles, it just makes business sense.
Do you ever feel a sense of intimidation given the impact of your position?
In a position like this, if you don’t sometimes feel intimidated, you’re either lying or you’re incredibly egocentric. When I was asked to take this role nearly five years ago, I went through all the emotions of excitement and utter fear—especially given that the responsibility is so considerable. Truth be told, whether you’re taking your first job or jumping out of your comfort zone in any way, these are the moments where you truly figure out who you are. For me, they’re also the most exciting ones. It goes back to my point about always being a learner.
Do you have any advice for Canada’s next generation of leaders—specifically those entering the tech arena?
I have the pleasure of working for Satya Nadella, the most outstanding CEO on the planet and an incredible human being. He’s honed the ability to think from a macroeconomic perspective down to a microeconomic perspective, and understands deeply the value of an empowering work culture. When I think about the complexity of how he operates his business—the aspect of fundamentally choosing to always learn, maintain curiosity and support others—that is what allows for the exploration of taking risks and producing great ideas. It’s a model that every next great leader should look to.