How People and Ideas are the Best Things Leaders Can’t Buy


What I Learned from Microsoft Executives

“Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde

A few years back I went on a tour around Microsoft, asking various executive leaders a brief set of questions.

I wanted to know what what their day is like, what drives them, and what holds them back.

I wanted to know what do they know now that they wish they knew back then, when they first started.  Mostly I wanted the benefit of their hind-sight and school of hard-knocks.

What I Asked Executive Leaders at Microsoft

I really wanted to know “A Day in the Life” of the executive leaders.  I wanted to get the WHY, WHAT, and HOW behind their stories.  I wanted to know holds them back.  I wanted to know what propels them forward.

Here are the questions I asked the executive leaders at Microsoft:

  1. What’s your story? (why Microsoft and what was your path)
  2. How do you manage your day?
  3. What’s the favorite part of your day?
  4. What are the keys to making things happen?
  5. How do you influence change across an organization?
  6. Why and when does change fail?
  7. What’s your take on thought leaders vs. people leaders?
  8. What is success?
  9. What are your key guiding principles?
  10. How do you build relationships that support you?
  11. How do you leverage your relationships?
  12. What limits what you can accomplish?
  13. What’s the secret to life?
  14. What is your biggest regret? Or, what do you know now, you wish you knew then?
  15. If you had a genie that could grant three wishes, what would they be?

Leaders are People, Too

Everybody is human.   These questions revealed a lot about just how human everybody is. If you ever forget just how human we all are, just ask somebody for their life story.

Everybody has issues.  Everybody has flaws.  Everybody has their demons.  Everybody is working on creating a better version of themselves.

Everybody wants to do the best with what they’ve got, in the best way they know how.

All Leaders Share Similar Success Patterns and Similar Problem Patterns

I found various success patterns show up time and again.

I also found the same kinds of problems show up time and again.  (I’ve addressed some of these problems in Getting Results the Agile Way.)

They all had struggles in some shape or form around their mind, their body, their emotions, their career, their relationships, and how they have fun.

And they all cared about doing meaningful things, and making a lasting impact.

They all cared about how they could change the world in at least some small way … their way.

They wanted to make a difference.  They wanted to matter.  They wanted to touch lives.

People and Ideas are the Best Things Leaders Can’t Buy

What did leadership executives teach me that I didn’t expect?

What surprised me the most was the biggest limitation for leaders of all levels.  Even leaders that have all the money and all the power.  You would think they have it all, but they don’t.  You would think these leaders were limitless in what they could achieve.  But they aren’t.

Even powerful executive leaders still have a serious and significant limit on what they are capable of.

And it all comes down to one thing.

So, what exactly was THE single biggest bottleneck that money and power could not buy? …

… Access to the right people and access to the best ideas.

Just because you’re a leader or an executive doesn’t entitle you to access to the best and the brightest in the bunch.

The best ideas come from brilliant people, and brilliant people tend to follow their favorite leaders.

Top talent is the ultimate bottleneck.

Creative people are more precious than ever.

If you want to change your game, help people realize their potential and become all that they are capable of.

Otherwise, you’ll find yourself lonely at the top.

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Photo by Darcy McCarty.


  1. The right people! When we find them all is well. And they are there, we just have to keep looking.

    If I had a genie that could grant three wishes? Be debt-free, build a house behind my parents’ in the potato field, and see world peace.


  2. That only supports the idea of being niche’ish.
    That should help to be in demand by executives in MS 😉

  3. But thats only relative. The people you consider right may not turn out to be useful one day. Or the right ideas may be good for a particuler situation but when the situation changes the idea wont be useful. I mean things keep changing and so does people and ideas. We all have to work with our share. Sometimes the people we may come across are helpful but at times people bring problems of their own or are a negative influence. One of the most noticeable thing about life is that its unpredictable. It keeps throwing new things at you. And then there is that ‘unknown’ factor. From unknown I mean, you cant tell whats going to happen in future. Life unfolds at its own pace.

  4. @ Jannie — Nothing ever takes the place of people. Nothing.

    @ Alik — Brain drain is a real problem that exponentially adds up. On the flip side, the real key is how do you attract amazing talent, and I think that’s always about vision, empowerment, and results. Talk is always cheap.

    @ John — That’s very much the Wooden way. I think he’s one of the best examples of taking good to great. His secret was journaling for every single player on the team and personalizing the practices for each member to help unleash their best.

  5. People LOVE to tell their story, I find. And when someone specifically asks you to tell them your story the invitation alone is encouraging. Seems that for some, having money & power is too comfortable. They get cut off from that “drive” to connect. Money is, unfortunately a motivator.

  6. Hi JD .. I guess they have more opportunity to know the people they need and would like to talk to .. but there must be loads of industries that are out of their ken .. where people work or are knowledgeable, but are unknown to others.

    The Royal Society here in the UK celebrates its 350th anniversary this year .. and I picked up a couple of interesting things I didn’t know about .. Harwell’s Science and Technology laboratory – where they’re able to put viruses into 3D, and rust in 3D, and paints from Van Gogh and Turner – to see how to stop the virus, to stop rusting and to protect the pictures for the future.

    Then there was the Materials Library – which houses new products, not yet fully integrated into our way of doing things .. eg the Eden Project’s “golf-ball” dimple greenhouse domes .. which water or dust cannot adhere to .. and building material that turns different colour depending on the outdoor light and heat, or a concrete filled blanket which when wet can be moulded ..

    Just amazed me – mind you my spread is pretty limited .. though my brain is obviously open to loads of interesting things.

    The Royal Society and the other Societies from those times fascinate me ..

    Have a good weekend .. Hilary

  7. Hi J.D !

    A very valuable post and a summing up of accumulated experience and deep understanding of the issues. The question list I guess is open and can be enriched on a second iteration. In the bottom line : … Access to the right people and access to the best ideas. – sounds great .One can add that the next step is doing business through essentially imperfect people(matched next to possible ideals). It is the Human Quality that is capable of acknowledging, comprehending and putting the most relevant ideas into practice that has the most significant impact. In this context, I have briefly outlined some of the issues + modern thinking that we have to be aware of in designing and redesigning the Future ( at individual, organizational, corporate and governmental +X level). The creative spark came from our colleague Ivana Sendecka and my comments can be found at : Maybe there will be of some interest .

    Speaking of humans, I ran into a inspiring classification of the seven types of characters that human beings possess. They were developed by Gurdjiev, who used to identify different people by the number they stand for in his list :
    1) – The first type lives for the sake of the body; does not eat to live; but lives to eat. So this is number one.
    2) –The second type is emotional; lives through his emotions – is either exited or depressed, his emotions constantly vary (Up –Down ). This second type could be found anywhere-you don’t have to seek him –he may even live inside you.
    3) –The third type is the intellectual type. He lives through his intellect. He is only a head; no body; no heart. He controls things through his head. He continues to manipulate the heart, his body and the rest through by his head; he is a scientist, ascetic, pandid, a person of knowledge, memory, logic, philosophy. This third type controls the world.
    4) – If one can find someone that incorporates the previous type of persons totally independent from one another, we will discover the fourth type : a yoga; a fakir; or a mystic.
    Such a person has divided his existence in 3-layers : when he is in the body, he is wholly in his body and prevents emotions or the head to take control over him. Being in his emotions, he does not allow the head or body to mess up. Such a person is not a mixture that can be manipulated. He is reliable. When he thinks –he thinks and does not allow emotions to overtake him, since this prevents clear thinking.
    The 4- type is a person so divided and functional in his existence, that each center in his multidimensional whole deals entirely with its own purposeful work. If the purposefulness lacks, then things are going to mess up and nothing will function properly. Such a purposeful multifunctional requires a serious and long training to be achieved. It is very difficult to achieve yet such people exist and can be discovered among the yoga and Sufi traditions.
    5)-The fifth type of person is even a greater rarity. While the fourth type manages to make the primary subsystems from which he has designed himself to function as a whole without intervening with each other and deteriorating ,leaving no external intervention possible. The fifth type is fundamentally aware of this. The fourth can function without being aware with the help of a teacher, or a discipline, or a methodology by which this division can be achieved. Here such a fundamental awareness is not absolutely essential. Some sort of profound understanding will do the job. However the fifth person is the person fully aware. He is aware of the great whole that contains the three different centers and the efforts
    of the fourth to make them function together independently -each on their own territory. So the fifth becomes the external observer and a supreme evidence. A person from the fifth type is very ;very rare. If there is not permanent holistic center to hold on his whole attention, he may tend to deviate in his primal awareness.
    5) – The sixth type is something completely rare. Ages will be necessary for the sixth type to become something more common. The sixth type is a person that is not only aware , but who is also centered, which means that he himself has reached the divine center. While the fifth type is capable of observing; the sixth type observes a constant and divine center –he has reached a tower within himself. His awareness is completely stable and does not deviate. His internal flame is stable, does not tremble.
    6) Lastly there is a seventh type of person, of which nothing can be said. Some sort of description can be made until reaching the sixth type, but not the seventh. You have to be staying next to him as to understand what he is like. The more you learn about him the less you know. The more you find out, the more you will feel that you still have a long way to go on your way to eternal wisdom. The seventh is an absolute mystery, unique and unbelievably natural and simple (of course on a fantastic –dragon level). Such were Lao Tzu, Buddha and Gurdjiev that became known to our humanity .

    So wrapping things up :

    – The people from type 1-3 , resemble each other in spite of their formal uniqueness.
    -The people that represent type- 4 ; are also close in resembling the others from their group. They differ a lot from the previous 3 –groups ; but not among themselves ; – yoga’s and fakirs resemble each over.
    The human being from the fifth –(5 ) group starts getting completely unique and rarely met. One can discover that 2 individuals of type –(5) are as different between each other, as one can only think of. The man of type –(6) is absolutely combined, and holistic. He is absolutely unique also.
    The seventh type – (7) reaches all the absolutes that are possible ! He is a culmination, indefinable and unknowable by the intellect!!! There is only one way to become to know such a person –by being in his presence (Confucius in the presence of Lao Tzu felt this way and saw a dragon ). If one is happy enough to meet such a person – he has to let him penetrate as the light – and become a grateful recipient. He will be blessed to meet the greatest diamond in the whole world.

    $ 70

    My teachings are easy to understand
    and easy to put into practice
    Yet your intellect will nether grasp them,
    And if you they to practice them, you’ll fail.

    My teachings are older than the world.
    How can you grasp their meaning ?

    If you want to know me,
    Look inside your heart.

    – Lao Tzu.

  8. @ Davina — Indeed they do, and it’s always insightful. I’ve been surprised by many of the stories. Getting to somebody’s “why” reveals a lot, and I find people always perk up when they tap their “why.”

    @ Kate — Money buys a lot of things, but not hearts and minds.

    @ Cheryl — Money can buy some things, but not the best 😉 A lack of money can make things improbable, but a supply of money doesn’t always make things possible. A big part of making things happen is knowing what to make happen … and knowing what to make happen involves having the right hearts and minds to co-create and shape it.

    @ Hilary — Societies sound like a great way to immerse in learning, like a tribe with like minds and shared goals. I guess for some you need to know the “secret handshake” 😉

    @ Michael — That’s quite the insightful comment — I got to learn more on system vs. interactive planning, problem solving, business model innovation, trans-formative leadership, development vs. growth, the complexity of project management, recreating capital projects, organizational learning and knowledge management … and 7 characters. “It is the Human Quality that is capable of acknowledging, comprehending and putting the most relevant ideas into practice that has the most significant impact” — well put!

  9. @ Rob — Next time we meet, I’ll take you through. It ran the gamut and some patterns were pretty insightful.

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