What it means to be a leader during a pandemic: Myladie Stoumbou, Microsoft

What it means to be a leader during a pandemic: Myladie Stoumbou, Microsoft

Today Dimitra Letsa and Moonshot News have the pleasure of hosting an in depth interesting discussion with Myladie Stoumbou, Regional Director for Microsoft, managing 24 markets based out of Athens, Greece.

We are talking about resilience, inclusion, how to be the best possible people’s manager in a remote environment and about the type of skills that will be needed in the future.

I will start by admitting my bias: I find Myladie to be one of the colleagues you wish you could clone and multiply and fill the company and the business world with; her biggest strength if you ask me? That she always has something more interesting, something more insightful to share, no matter how long or how much you talk to her.

 

Myladie, thank you so much for accepting to give this interview to Moonshot. I’m super happy to be talking to you this morning. Can we start by hearing from you who you are and what you do?

Yes, sure. My name is Μyladie Stoumbou. I am an engineer by background and by heart. I have studied engineering a few decades ago and since then I have been employed in the tech industry in various positions, starting in technical roles at the beginning of my career, then transitioning into sales and business development and leadership roles across South and Eastern Europe. Currently, I am working at Microsoft. I am with Microsoft almost 10 years and I am managing a very diverse multinational team covering partner business across 24 countries of Central and Eastern Europe – a very interesting area geopolitically, but also very promising from a market perspective. And of course, very diverse culturally…

 

Twenty four markets to run, it is really quite a job. What would you say are the key abilities for a leader who is managing such a vast and diverse area?

Well, you have to be open to learn. You must have an appetite to learn and to understand. And I think one of the leadership qualities I had to exercise a lot was to listen and not jump into conclusions or judgment – because this is what many of us tend to do: based on our own backgrounds, we make assumptions about people we meet.

So, showing understanding and empathy is key – particularly in cases where the team is so diverse from a cultural perspective, from geopolitical perspective, even from a market perspective, you have to be able, above all, to really understand what is happening: so you have to be curious. You have to ask questions and you have to listen – to listen actively.

I think those qualities have helped me, particularly in the first months of my landing into this region, to navigate the complexity of the role.

 

”goal number one is to win people’s trust”

As a people’s manager, what is the biggest challenge you faced when you start with a new team knowing that they are so different between themselves and than you?

Well, you have to win their trust, right? I think when we talk about leaders, we refer to the people we trust, that we trust not only with our day to day job, but with our future as well: because we all want to develop and we trust that our leaders will support us grow.

So, goal number one is to win people’s trust – and I personally I believe that you achieve that by showing care about their problems, about their challenges and by helping them solve them, and also by coaching them and giving them the opportunities to grow.

A diverse team and an inclusive environment is a key leadership commitment that companies need to make, diversity it’s not just nice to have anymore. It is an ethical responsibility of the leaders today and tomorrow to have teams that are more diverse and more inclusive. There are researches that show that teams that are more diverse are having bigger profitability, bigger impact and better results and better outcomes.

”It is the leadership’s responsibility to see to that everybody

is included and empowered to bring their diverse talents”

So the business case is there: and it is a positive one, but it also is a matter of commitment by the leadership side to make sure that they are looking for diverse talent when they’re hiring, that they are open to hire people different than themselves. And when these people are joining, it is the leadership’s responsibility to see to that they are included into the culture and empowered to bring their talents, because we do need that type of differentiation into the teams.

 

This is a great point, as it is also a common phenomenon to hire people of different backgrounds and then we expect them to become exactly the same like the rest. I must also confess that I will never get tired of asking people to communicate the importance of leadership commitment. Diversity doesn’t just happen for the companies, you need to have a strategy.

Going to another challenging issue – we have been working from home for almost a year now. What is your view as a manager on the impact that this has had on the teams, on you, and what are the skills that you think are required for managing people remotely?

First of all, I want to say that I’m a big fan of working from home. For many years, when I was not travelling for work, I have been working from home, as you know. And I find extremely important the flexibility that this entails, the ability to manage your personal life in a way that works best for you and at the same time be able to be successful on the professional side or to deliver on your commitments on the professional side.

What we are experiencing right now is, of course, a bit different. We are working from home in the midst of the pandemic, so there’s no travelling. People don’t go to the office either and whole families are stuck at home working – as we speak today my husband is working on the other side of the house and my son in the next room is having his online exam – so I am a bit stressed also about him at the same time…

 

”There is a lot of stress at homes right now – and companies need to look at that…”

So we are a whole family that is stuck at home all day. I think this has put a lot of strain on the employees today and I would say, particularly on the females, because in most cases women carry a heavier load of the household  tasks, of the caring tasks, the home schooling… So there’s a lot of stress at the homes right now.

And I think this is something that companies need to look at. Especially as we even have evidence, like a recent research that was done in the UK a couple of months ago, that the employees are working now much more and they are having burnout symptoms: as we are stuck at home, we don’t have a personal or private social life. So what we do is we never stop working.

So, this is something that we have to be aware of and try to really help the employees to focus on the tasks that are really making an impact on the business and try to minimize the overheads: you know, even before COVID statistics showed that approximately half of the meetings are not necessary, or that we have up to thirty-six interruptions within an hour to check emails that are coming in.

And that was when we were physically together, imagine now that we are fully online: we had to switch what happened physically, into virtually, but we didn’t optimize. So, I think companies really need to look at optimizing, first of all, the rhythm of connection between the teams and then focusing on the connection and building up the team environment and the climate.

”We have built a very important social capital – we can’t risk losing it”

Simulate the physical connection in the virtual world, meaning before we start this interview, we had the chit chat, what happened in our lives in between. We haven’t spoken for a month. We share the few things about our families, etc. I think that type of personal connection needs to stay alive.

We have built over the years a very important social capital in the companies that we have been working in. And we are now risking to lose this, so it is important to keep it alive – and the leaders need to help.

The second thing is that I find necessary to do now, is to reach out to everybody on our team just to have a short talk, or just check how they’re doing. It is so easy to become just transactional. I call you when I need something, we get into a call, we do business, then we get to the next call and the call after that…

But the human connection needs to be there as well: between employees, between manager and employee, among all of us. So, we need to somehow simulate that type of human connection that is very much needed for all of us to remain energized and motivated and above all to stay resilient.

Until this is over.

 

I can hear what makes you a great manager and I’m super happy to hear you talking about the responsibility of the company and the managers in making this work, because I fear that there could be a trap in believing that it is enough to just let people work remotely – while it could be that people who find it great to work from home, are the ones employed by companies with a great system for remote work; by companies that know for instance how to respect people’s weekends and personal time.

That’s why I believe it is important for people in leadership positions to understand that just letting people work from home is not enough: you need to implement a whole system.

Exactly! You have to give people the clarity of what they need to do and at the same time empower them to say no to distractions that are coming their way from different people. So making sure that they focus on what needs to be done and clear the clutter. We really need to be mindful and remove the unimportant distractions and keep the essence of things.

And I fully agree about your comment on companies that they have the systems in place – we cannot overlook the fact that for a vast amount of companies, there was an overnight transition to remote work: there was no culture. There was no system in place.

And I’m not talking about tech systems; I’m talking about an evaluation system, a KPIs system, an HR system – in some cases there was not even the legal framework in place for people to be able to work from home…

”The good outcome of the pandemic is that companies started looking into the well-being of their employees”

So the discussion about remote work has just started and my personal perspective is that once this period is over, we will transition into a hybrid workplace, where the office space will also change to match the new requirements. We might for instance have less office space, but a safer one.

But it is a discussion that is great to have: because in the end it will be to the benefit of the employee. And it is in my opinion one of the good outcomes of this pandemic: that many companies looked into the well-being and at the health and safety of their employees: something that was not surfacing before, now became a key priority for many.

”And I think this is one of my positive takeaways from this crisis.

 

Stoumbou, Microsoft

I would like to ask you a bit more about remote work from a manager’s perspective. With your experience, can you share with us some tips for managers on how to manage remotely, how to help people be productive and what you monitor on your employees and how you set your KPIs in your team. What would be your tips for managers who were used to see people work around them before and now they feel lost on how to monitor them?

You know, that’s a good point. I talked about clarity earlier: I think the most important is to provide clarity on the deliverables both at a team and at personal level. When we set objectives and targets, we need to have clarity on how each team member contributes to those targets: and if you have that, then it’s OK not to have visibility on a daily basis or on a every hour basis on what they do. Because if people feel accountable on what they need to deliver, then they will work for it. I truly believe in the goodness of people and that if they know what they need to do, they actually do it.

Then if I talk purely about the business side, I believe one of the things that we need to definitely cultivate more is a culture of feedback. And by that I do not mean what we often say ‘let me give you some feedback’: this is a phrase that many employees are really scared about, as it makes them feel they will listen to something really bad.

But thinking about it: I was there attending a training the other day and somebody told us that feedback is not only the breakfast of champions, feedback is the breakfast and the lunch and the supper and the intermediate snack of the champions.

”You cannot excel at what you do unless you are open to feedback”

But the truth is that you cannot excel in what you do, if you are not open to receiving feedback; so getting feedback from different people, especially from peers, not only from superiors, is really important. And it goes hand in hand with a culture that embraces growth mindset that translates into don’t take this on a personal level. Take the feedback as a tool to further grow and to learn from.

I think that’s one point. The second point is getting a pulse of the team as you go, whether that’s a daily pulse, if you have a day meeting, whether that’s a weekly pulse, whether you have you just, you know, chat with them occasionally to check on how they are, if they need any help. Because I think the manager who really shows care is the manager whom people trust that they will help them solve the problems. I have people who feel lost if you don’t occasionally ping them to check how they are and some people don’t do it by themselves. There are some people who are very, very proactive into that, but some people just stay there and they get lost and they get demotivated or depressed.

”As managers, we have to create a place where people want to be”

So, I think on the manager side, we do have a responsibility to really get that pulse either at the team or at the individual level just to make sure that people are well, that are in good shape. And, that they are feeling well about what they do, whether they need help or not. And of course, as a manager to ask yourself, how can I step in to help them?

And last but not least, embedding some fun into the day to day activities. We used to have fun when we were traveling, for instance: after a long work day we would go out and have a nice dinner, some drinks and enjoy ourselves.

And now we cannot do that, but who’s keeping us from having a Friday happy hour, let’s say 30 minutes with our drinks on our home table just chit chatting and making some fun comments. Who’s keeping us from having a virtual Christmas party or doing some trivia? If you put your mind into it, you can be creative and recreate that atmosphere.

A place where people want to be and a place where people feel good regardless of whether you are with them on a day to day or not, I think this is this is the biggest challenge right now, not so much the business topics, but keeping the people motivated, energized and taking care of their well-being, until this is over.

”Lifelong learning is the biggest skill for all of us”

Talking about the end of the pandemic, how do you think the job market will look like after this is over? Some jobs will change scope, some will vanish… Which skills do you think are important for employees to keep their competitiveness?

I firmly believe in lifelong learning. I love learning myself, I feel that I could be ninety, hundred years old and still wanting to learn new things.

And even if we look at the World Economic Forum report for top skills needed for the future, apart from the technological skills, one of the top ones is active learning and how you manage your learning. There are a lot more skills that are connected with learning, like public speaking for example, or problem solving and analytical thinking, data driven decision making. These are all skills that can be learned.

So, yes, there will be some shifting in the jobs after the pandemic. There will be new jobs that will require new skills. And the best way to be ready for the changes is to be open to learning and grow.

 ”The biggest mistake you can make is to take failure personally

And, if we return to the personal level, can you share with us the worst advice you’ve been given, or the biggest mistake you have done?

The biggest mistake I can easily tell you – the worst advice I wouldn’t know, there were so many of them… (laughter)

Anyway, I think the biggest mistake was to take failure really personally. And I think this is something even more difficult in Greece where we have a culture of wanting to be the best – we do not learn how to embrace failure. I was raised and educated with the mentality that I needed to be the best pupil, the best university student, the best in my profession, the best, the best, the best. But nobody had taught us that we will fail as well…

So it was hard for me to fail. But I think that as I grew older and reflected on where some of my failures led me to, on the path I took after some redirections, that made me really more stoic – stoic philosophy is after all also part of the Greek culture.

 ”Moving on, a bit less injured every time, is the key for me”

Of course, it is not easy: we are in a very changing environment and in a highly competitive environment for that matter. So, of course you might put some targets that you will not manage to reach or you might have some ambitions that will not be fulfilled. But in the end, it’s about taking the leanings and moving on.

Moving on, a bit less injured every time, is the key for me.

 

I really appreciate you sharing that. I feel it is important for every one of us to understand that we might take a step backwards or sideways in order to move forward; I think it’s a very important message for people to hear, as we normally get stuck in our negative paths more than we get motivated by the positive.

Actually, this is how we are wired as humans. We are wired to look at the danger, we can look at the bad things and not, for instance, spend a lot of time into celebrating the good things that happen. I think it’s part of the human nature. But in the end, we can train ourselves to learn that a redirection is also a good thing – and that’s why I’m now a bit more relaxed and I find it easier to leave things behind.

 

Myladie, it has been really, really fascinating and a big pleasure to talk to you today. I cannot thank you enough for accepting to do this interview. And I want to extract a promise that when we are out of this lock down and we have the first onsite Moonshot conference, that you will be a speaker.

I would love that! And thank you also for providing a forum for the discussion and for having me among the first interviews! I would like to wish Moonshot news all the best: we do need such a platform in European tech and particularly us women, we need a voice. So, thank you for providing that.

 

 

 

 

 

Dimitra Letsa

Dimitra Letsa

[email protected]

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