Kevin Ackhurst took on the role of Microsoft New Zealand managing director last October, replacing Helen Robinson. He joined from Microsoft’s corporate headquarters in Redmond, where he was worldwide general manager of Operations and Business Strategy for Public Sector. Before that he was public sector director at Microsoft Australia.
Louis van Wyk: You have been in this role since last October. What has been the greatest challenge in terms of getting to know how the New Zealand market works?
Kevin Ackhurst: When you live in Australia, you have this assumption that there are a lot of similarities between New Zealand and Australia. It is only when you live here that you understand that culturally the two countries are quite different. For me the learning has been in understanding those differences.
LvW: How did you go about doing this?
KA: Making sure that I have strong relationships with our customers and partners [and meeting] with our government customers, our commercial customers and the business partners we work with. Some of it is seeking their feedback and making sure I understand [what is] important to them. In addition, making sure I spend time with people from organisations [such as] the New Zealand Institute or the Hugo Group and understating what their roles are and the things they are trying to do. I have met with a variety of politicians as well to get their perspective. If you balance that with talking to customers, partners and getting those observations it helps you to improve your overall understanding of the country. This is the fifth country I have lived in and I have always felt you need to take the time to understand the place where you are working – what is important to people; what are the main things they are trying to achieve?
LvW: Has that attitude helped you as the first non-New Zealander to hold this role? Was there any perception that you may not know the culture or how New Zealand operates?
KA: It has never been verbalised to me that that might have existed. I came into the role thinking it is important to make sure I understand what is important to New Zealanders. I think I have demonstrated through the interactions I’ve had that I try to understand the expectation of customers and the economic landscape within which we are working, and through that think about tuning what Microsoft is doing in a way that provides benefits to customers and partners. I’ve never got the perception that coming from the outside is an issue. I think it is a lot about attitude – if you come in with a certain level of arrogance and without taking the time to understand the environment, then it is easy to fail.
LvW: Microsoft New Zealand reported strong revenue and earrings growth in 2007. How does the company maintain this level of growth in such a mature market?
KA: The only way that we continue to grow is through our business partners. If we do things that help our partners be successful, and create products that help them be successful, then we can be successful. Every dollar earned by Microsoft typically translates into at least $8 for our partners – that’s been proven through IDC studies and I think if we ever lose our focus on wanting to do the right thing for partners that would have impact in terms of our results. For me the interaction with partners – the way we work with them and the desire to make them successful – is one of the most important things I can focus on. Their success and our success are completely intertwined.
LvW: What are the main things you are focussing on this year to achieve partner success?
KA: What I have noticed so far is that we frequently tell partners what is important or what we think they should be doing. We don’t necessarily spend the time to tell them why those things are important to us. What I have started doing in the last couple of months is talking to partners about how I am measured and how we measure our business here. If they understand the things that make us successful and we understand the things that make them successful, you are more likely to build relationships that will lead to greater success.
LvW: So, a more open approach with partners?
KA: I tend to favour transparency a lot – giving people more information rather than less. I think if you do that you have to help people contextualise the information. Giving them that information, contextualising it and being more transparent actually creates a better relationship. That is what relationships are all about.
LvW: In recent years, Microsoft has released a massive amount of new products. What is your advice to partners on where to focus and how to get their heads around all this new technology?
KA: You’ve got these products that over time have become more feature-rich, and then you have this capability that exists in partners to deploy and support them and the sales capability to put forward the value-proposition. When you think about structuring your business, you need to think about all these elements. When I first joined the company [11 years ago] I pretty much knew every product. Nowadays we have about 2000 products and it is impossible for any one person to know everything about all the products. It would have to be the case that focus and prioritisation become most important. If you are a relatively small partner and try to do everything, you tend to skim the surface in terms of your capability to deploy and sell. Those organisations that have chosen to be very strong in where they focus, are the ones that inherently will be more successful than those who try to do everything. I think the greatest disservice to the technology is to try to be an expert in all of the technology, because there is no way any organisation can do that nowadays. Focus and prioritisation is important in terms of people being successful.
LvW: To what extent is Microsoft helping those smaller partners understand what skills they have and to deliver technologies such as unified communications and virtualisation?
KA: We have groups of people internally who are strongly focussed on that. I have asked [partner director] John Bessey to have a much stronger focus [on] the overall interaction with partners, where we have perhaps diversified some of that focus in the past. Most recently, a lot of our investment has been in helping people have proficiency in licensing – we found that some customers were challenged in terms of the complexity associated with the licensing of software. We’ve had this significant investment in ensuring there is licensing proficiency in the partners that sell our products. As of [last month] we have increased our licensing proficiency within our partners by more than any other Microsoft subsidiary in the world. With unified communication, virtualisation and software-plus-services – if any company tries to become an expert on all of those, that is going to be very challenging for them. In each of those areas we have programmes that help people become proficient. For the larger organisations, we have ongoing reviews and [work on] business plans together. I participate in those reviews and so do the managing directors of those organisations.
LvW: Is your focus for Microsoft New Zealand to maintain that top position in licensing proficiency?
KA: I look at it and think what we can do in other areas – unified communications, collaboration and the products we are launching this year. If we can do that with licensing proficiency, what can we do with improved proficiency in both the selling and technical sides of those other areas? If you get capability improvement, you get productivity improvement and productivity improvement is important to New Zealand.
LvW: To what extent do you think a lack of productivity is an issue for the New Zealand economy?
KA: OECD rankings indicate that we lag behind other countries in terms of productivity, yet at the same time there are indications that New Zealanders frequently work harder. We also have this interesting dynamic that a lot of people leave the country for overseas experience and may not come back. Statistics show that if you stay away from your country for more than five years, the chances of you returning are significantly reduced. We have a whole group of people with great capability who have left the country. At Microsoft we have always believed that the software we provide can assist in terms of productivity, but in order for that to happen it has to go hand-in-hand with capability development. If we have the right skills in the country, that helps us in terms of productivity. This will inherently assist the country with growing our GDP. Also, within our industry, we have a significant shortage of skills. It is not hard to find people for jobs, but it is very hard to find capable people. It is important that people like myself and other leaders in this industry work together to help ICT be a successful pillar supporting the economy. With the work that government does, those two pieces together are going to lead to success.
LvW: What interaction have you had on that topic with leaders from other companies, such as IBM, Sun or Oracle?
KA: We’re starting to have fairly regular interactions now and it appears all of us have a common interest. There is a strong desire to work together on elements that are common to us separate to the competition we are involved in, which are of benefit to the industry. I have met with representatives of those companies mentioned. All of us working on that together is going to have a greater impact than each of us working individually.