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Spotlight On: Sabine Bendiek, Chairwoman of the Management Board, Microsoft Germany
May 22, 2017
In January 2016, Sabine Bendiek took over as Chairwoman of the Management Board at Microsoft Germany – the first woman at the top of the company. In this feature she discusses the qualities that have got her where she is today, how the Firm shaped her life, and what she hopes to achieve during her time at the helm of Microsoft Germany. 

This is the twenty-first in our "Spotlight On" series of articles, which feature prominent alumni sharing their thoughts about their careers at the Firm and beyond.

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Breaking new ground

Much has been made of the fact that Sabine is the first woman at the top of Microsoft Germany. You might expect her to say that making it to the top of the male-dominated IT world has involved a constant battle for recognition. But Sabine is full of surprises – which may in part explain her success.

"First of all, I believe that hard work is the main ingredient for any successful executive career," she explains. "There will be times when men and women alike will be faced with struggle. Remaining excited about the positive aspects of difficulties and challenges certainly helps – but I have never felt under constant pressure to gain acceptance primarily because I am a woman."

Nevertheless, she admits that sometimes others have doubted her ability. "There were moments when the question of 'Can she really do it?' was hanging in the air," she says. "Naturally, a high personal energy level and a knack for convincing people are helpful in these situations." 

Personal energy is something that Sabine has in abundance. She has been described as having the energy of a high-speed intercity train. It's an image she does not reject. "I can be very intense, especially in difficult situations," she says. "Resigning myself to circumstances and giving up are not my forté."

What is the secret of her success? "There are moments when women need to show that extra bit of self-confidence and persistence to hold their ground. Another key factor is the ability to get right back up after being knocked against the wall – not to suffer too much from setbacks."

Curiosity is also essential: "Another factor I consider equally important is my keenness to learn new things. And the fact that I've been lucky to meet the right people at the right time, and to have made the right decisions."

The McKinsey factor

Sabine joined the Firm while she was studying at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The people she met played a vital role in her decision to sign up.

"It wasn't my original intention to pursue a career in consulting," she says. "But I was really fascinated by the people I got to know – their spirit, their intellectual curiosity, and the professional standards everyone was committed to. I have always decided on career changes with a view to where best to learn from the people I work with, so I made my decisions quickly."

Starting out in Hamburg, Germany as one of the Firm's first female consultants in the Business Technology Office, she quickly learned from the people around her: "I was able to hone my skills in structuring and problem solving, in clarity of communication and storytelling, and putting stock in important news with underlying facts. I also learned how to remain courageous and calm, especially when dealing with people on different hierarchical levels, and when discussing issues even of a difficult nature."

She describes her time at McKinsey as a great experience and a "constant invitation to go one step further on the path to continuing personal development."

Culture differences: America and Germany

After leaving the Firm, Sabine spent over a decade at (Siemens)-Nixdorf – a quintessentially German company. She then worked for nearly five years as Vice President and General Manager, Germany at Dell EMC and over three years in other roles at Dell, before the move to Microsoft. How does she rate American working culture compared to that of Germany?

"People shape the corporate culture," Sabine says. "Their similarities define what is important to them, and how they imbue the strategic priorities in the company with life – how the company presents itself to employees and the customers."

"Still, it is the American companies that are more likely to appreciate initiative and try out new things," she continues, "even if they haven't analyzed the risks involved down to the last detail. The typical German way of starting out by first checking all potential vulnerabilities and working out solutions is not always considered constructive – although a combination of both approaches can be very powerful. Over the years, I've learned to successfully work with both sides."

"Our goal? The success of our customers"

Sabine says that the priority at Microsoft Germany is to listen to customer requirements. "The era of digital transformation requires us to be ever closer to our customers and their needs, focusing on creating solutions rather than simply selling licenses," she says. "This transformation is reflected in our mission statement: to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more."

In practice, this means that customers expect more support, guidance, and understanding of their business, according to Sabine. In her view, Microsoft must offer a high degree of flexibility: "We liaise closely with our partners and customers, and we are continually growing into our role as a trusted advisor for digital transformation," she explains.

Naturally, the German subsidiary of Microsoft is more than just a distribution channel for the parent company. "Together with approximately 31,500 German partner companies, we are a key strategic solution partner for Germany as a digital business location," says Sabine. "And that's what we need to keep focusing on." 

Cloud computing

One of the big issues for the IT industry at the moment is cloud computing. Sabine says that Microsoft Germany has taken up the challenge. "One of our key fields of action is building the intelligent cloud," she says. "With all organizations turning into digital enterprises, we need cloud infrastructures."

She continues: "Our underlying cloud infrastructure is the Azure platform, which we are constantly enhancing – with clear-cut focus and at high speed – to provide our customers with application services and development tools for areas such as cognitive services, voice recognition, Big Data analysis, and machine learning."

That means making significant investments, of course. "We are now operating more than 100 data centers in 38 regions worldwide," says Sabine. "In Europe alone, we have invested USD 3 billion over the last few years. And that doesn't even include our significant investments in R&D in areas such as artificial intelligence."

"Cloud computing is the foundation for future technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence or mixed reality solutions, and holography," she explains. "We have clearly aligned our company to embrace the digital future."

Under her leadership, Microsoft Germany is partnering with Deutsche Telekom to create a German-run computer cloud called Microsoft Cloud Germany. The model is unique, with access to customer data controlled by a data trustee, T-Systems International GmbH, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, and an independent company headquartered in Germany and governed by German law.

"Microsoft will not gain access to this data without the data trustee's or customer's consent," Sabine explains. "Even where the data trustee has given its approval, Microsoft can only access customer data under the data trustee's supervision, and only for a limited time."

The rationale behind this is not increased data protection or data security, but an additional offering optimized to meet the needs of companies, that underlie special compliance rules: some organizations – e.g., in the public sector – are not allowed to access public cloud solutions unless their data is exclusively stored in Germany or access to this data is controlled by a German company.

Cybersecurity also continues to be a major issue. Sabine says that the Microsoft Cloud is protected at the physical, network, host, application, and data levels, making its services resilient to attack. 

"Continuous proactive monitoring, penetration testing, and the application of strict security guidelines and operational processes help to further improve the quality of detection and protection features in the Microsoft Cloud," she explains. "With our more than 100 data centers and relevant monitoring mechanisms, there is virtually nothing that escapes us – and we're getting better every day."

Managing change

A constant concern of the IT industry is change management. Sabine's approach? "To me, the three critical success factors for change management are the buy-in and trust of my management and staff, having a clear-cut strategy, and effectively implementing the change in operational measures."

"First, the buy-in and trust of management and staff. This can only be achieved by ongoing communication," she says. "Unless I communicate openly and frequently, my co-workers will not trust me."

She continues: "Second, having a clear-cut strategy. To successfully persuade your workforce to go along with the realignment, you must be able to communicate change as the right thing to do, and as something which is significant and fundamentally necessary. The more the employees are personally involved in the change process, the easier it will be to implement any changes."

"And third, implementing the change in operations," she concludes. "Milestones and regular reviews of previously defined objectives are essential. This applies both to the enterprise as a whole and to every single one of us. Otherwise, you will lose track or miss the signs when a course correction is in order."

Personal leadership style 

Much of Sabine's success is down to her personal qualities as a leader. While holding the reins at Microsoft Germany, Sabine is careful to remain flexible. But she knows that ultimately the buck stops with her.

"I don't holler. I don't make cut-in-stone pronouncements," she says. "I am able to change my perspective during discussions. But at the end of the day, it's me who has to have the courage and decide which way to go. That's something you have to be comfortable with, and be willing to face the consequences." 

Sabine has developed her own particular style of leadership. "I always try to treat my counterparts with appreciation and respect – and that goes especially for my team members. Good executives should be able to listen, and not hesitate to embrace and integrate valid criticism or even any good ideas their employees come up with. In other words, even executives can learn new things."

Who is she inspired by? "I don't actively look for role models to put on a pedestal," she says. "But the fact is that I run into them every day."

She continues: "The ITC industry and the business world definitely have a number of impressive personalities who are driving great visions. But personally I am most inspired by the individual performance of team members to translate and implement these visions into the everyday routine of organizations."

Driven by passion, love – and curiosity

So, what drives Sabine in her work and career? "All the decisions I have taken in my professional career were driven by passion and love for the job, coupled with the conviction that I would be able to learn from people with and for whom I work." 

"I've never really had a career plan. I simply passionately enjoyed what I did," she adds.

Over all, her philosophy is shaped by intellectual curiosity and a willingness to persist. "I think most of all my career has been shaped by curiosity, enthusiasm, and the ability to motivate other people to come along on the journey, and to inspire trust in them. This, together with persistence. A failure is my biggest motivation for trying again – with a new approach the second time around."

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