Welcome to our series “How I Became a …,” where we dig into the stories of accomplished and influential people to find out how they got to where they are in their careers. We’re finding out what their biggest challenges, their biggest passions and their biggest pieces of wisdom are — for you.
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited.
Kathleen Hogan holds some of the most important reins at tech giant Microsoft as its chief people officer, where she engineered the company’s new paid leave policy. Her accomplished career also includes stints at Oracle and McKinsey.
USA TODAY College caught up with Hogan to talk about the 4th grade, Rhodes scholarships and hard work.
What’s your coffee order?
Drip coffee with cream.
Who’s your biggest mentor?
I am lucky to have had (and still have) several powerful mentors in my life.
The first was my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Deadhart, who told me, “Kathleen, I think you’re really good at math.” He inspired me to work hard at math, which was somewhat unconventional for girls back in the 70s. His encouragement started me down my career path, and I worked hard and landed a spot at Harvard.
Another mentor was one of my professors, Kala Krishna. She was incredibly smart and successful, and she had twins! This gave me the hope that perhaps one day I could have a family and a professional career.
My development manager at Oracle was Julie Butterfield, who coached me to become myself. Kevin Johnson, now CEO of Starbucks, hired me into Microsoft and encouraged me to take on bigger roles with more impact. He has a great sense of humor and made work fun.
Finally, I have to mention Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO. In addition to being my boss, he’s been so empowering as a mentor and supporter, and has really helped me grow as a leader.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?
Raising my son is the coolest thing I continue to do. He inspires me every day — and it was cool to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia together.
What’s a typical day look like for you?
There are no typical days for me, and I love that!
Most days, I’m up early to catch up on email and news. Then I get breakfast for my son, send him off to school and head into the office. On my drive into the office, I’m usually taking a call for work, but if not, I always use that time to call my mom and dad.
At the office, I spend the first few minutes of my workday getting organized and making sure I haven’t missed anything that needs an immediate reply. Then I usually meet with one or more members of my leadership team to discuss HR projects. Looking after 110,000 employees requires a concerted effort by a very dedicated team of experts.
The rest of the day can be a combination of meetings, speaking to employees across the company (sometimes this is over Skype for our global teams) or meeting with Satya (Nadella) and our senior leadership team.
How would you describe your job?
HR is critical to any company, and we have a responsibility to make Microsoft an exceptional place to work. I take our charter very seriously and come in every day motivated to do as much as I possibly can for our employees.
As the chief people officer, I wear many hats. I’m the HR person for our Satya, I lead a team of HR professionals and I represent all employees at Microsoft. My job is really to listen and learn from them, and make decisions that help us create an empowering culture where everyone can do their best work.
What’s the best advice someone’s ever given you?
The best advice came from my dad when I experienced a significant personal disappointment. I was a finalist to be a Rhodes Scholar, and I had my mind set on that achievement and then becoming a professor. But I didn’t get selected.
When I walked out of that room and my dad saw the sadness in my eyes, he said, “Kathleen, there are many paths to happiness. Failure is only failure if you don’t learn from this experience and figure something out about yourself. Learn, keep trying and go be greater. By the way, I’m still on the wait list at a prestigious medical school.”
What does your career path look like?
I came out of Harvard and went to Oracle. They originally wanted me to go into marketing, but I wanted to learn to code and I became a developer.
After Oracle, I went back to school to get my MBA at Stanford University, and then landed a role at McKinsey. I was a partner in the firm and Microsoft was my client.
Ultimately, Microsoft offered me a full-time job, and I joined. In my last role before becoming chief people officer, I ran the Services origination (over 20,000 consulting and support professionals worldwide).
Favorite part of your job?
To work alongside the amazing people at Microsoft who share a strong sense of purpose. I am so proud to come to work with a diverse set of talented individuals who are passionate about using technology to improve the world.
What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Nothing replaces hard work. You can be incredibly talented, but hard work can surpass talent any day.
I would also suggest that you seek out people who bring out the best in you. Be open to new ideas and suggestions you hadn’t considered for yourself. Be open to learning, and don’t be afraid to fail!
I am a firm believer in having a growth mindset — remind yourself that it’s okay to fail if you learn from your failures.
Susannah Hutcheson is a USA TODAY College digital producer.