How She Leads: Kathryn Willson of Microsoft

How She Leads

How She Leads: Kathryn Willson of Microsoft

How She Leads spotlights women leaders in sustainability. Today, Maya Albanese focuses on Kathryn Willson, the director of business development and partner strategy on the environmental sustainability team at Microsoft Corporation.

An intrapreneur at the world's largest software company, Willson is responsible for creating and implementing a global partner strategy for Microsoft's environmental efforts. With the company's vast size and scope, that means developing products strategy for an organization that operates around the world with partners in scores of industries and sectors.

Microsoft is one of 49 firms participating in the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps program this year. The company also is partnering with Dell in the Reconnect Recycling Program, which allows customers to drop off used computer hardware for free recycling at any Goodwill store in North America.

One of Microsoft's recent successes in developing global environmental solutions is Eye on Earth, which offers localized air and water quality statistics for 32 European countries and presents the data in a visual format using Microsoft Bing Maps. Microsoft's Rob Bernard talked about Eye on Earth at's State of Green Business Forum this year in San Francisco.

Microsoft also has released several key industry reports, including an outline of best business practices for sustainable data centers and, most recently, a look at how cloud computing helps cities become smarter about energy, a report Willson directed.

Maya Albanese: Since you have a history at Microsoft in several roles, explain how you attained this role directing environmental sustainability?

Kathryn Willson: The environmental sustainability team at Microsoft started with a green operations focus, because the company needed to understand its environmental footprint in order to come up with a strategy on how to reduce it over time. More recently, the need to create software that could provide environmental solutions to other companies was acknowledged. That was when I made a lateral move to focus on this outbound sustainability work with our partners. The combination of my experience working with all the Microsoft product groups to develop business strategies and my background in architecture positioned me well to move in to this role.

MA: I noticed that you started your career in architecture. What influenced you to make a career switch, and how does your training in architecture play into your work at Microsoft?

KW: The timing of my graduation from Haas School of Management was the exciting moment when Netscape had its big IPO, and the high-tech business community was vibrant. I followed this energy out of business school and spent the year after graduating working at Autodesk, where the synergies with architecture are obvious. Microsoft tapped me on the back to work for them while I was at Autodesk. It was never a planned move into software or sustainability, but your career often just takes you new places over time.

MA: Was there an event or person in your life that inspired you to work for environmental change in business?

KW: My passion for this area has gradually augmented as my family has grown. You look at your kids and imagine their future and think, "Am I really going to leave them with this mess?" That is not what you want for your children. There is now a heightened awareness of climate change and frequent discussions about it are ensuing in classrooms and at dinner tables. I think most kids look at adults and wonder what they are doing all day. Although my kids are still relatively young, they understand what I'm doing and are proud of me for it.

MA: What advice would you give to other aspiring sustainability leaders?

KW: If you want to have a role within your company focused on sustainability, then there is opportunity in any position to get creative and integrate it. Environmental stewardship should be woven in to how we all live, work and play.

MA: When a company is interviewing for a sustainability officer, what kind of qualities should the hiring manager be looking for in an ideal candidate?

KW: The candidate must be able to change business operations by engaging groups at all ends of the company. At Microsoft, we are a small team working horizontally across facilities, research, product development, sales and marketing, etc. We must be able to manage all these groups that all operate with completely different objectives and models. In other words, you have to be nimble to navigate horizontally and vertically. You need to have good business and market analytic skills, adaptability, and strong communication and interpersonal skills. And when it comes down to it, sustainability leaders need to be able to tell a good story, so persuasion and presentation skills must be strong.

MA: What portion of the workforce participates in sustainability initiatives even if sustainability is not part of their job description?

KW: The environmental sustainability team is a dedicated group of 10 people here and a larger virtual team made up of leaders in several subsidiaries around the world, including in real estate and facilities and our corporate citizenship department. We are about 30 people total, all relatively senior level, because we need the people who can exercise influence at the company to be on our team. We have a lot of passionate people, which makes it a very exciting place to work.

MA: What do you see as the next big market opportunity in sustainability?

KW: As a pioneer developer of software, Microsoft feels a great responsibility for the impact of IT and computers on the environment. Thirty years ago, computers were not an environmental issue. Today, computers are in the hands of more than a billion people, and the IT industry is responsible for 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a comparable contribution to the airline industry.

MA: How do you begin to reduce such a big impact on the planet?

KW: There is a huge opportunity for software to be a solution that touches every part of the economy, because changing behavior requires data. People and companies need data to guide them to improve their performance over time. Also, our hardware partners have made huge improvements in the way that computing equipment operates. IT hardware uses a whole lot less energy than it used to. There are Energy Star ratings and EPEAT ratings that can help you find good hardware, but then you need software to be smart enough to run efficiently. Everyone who writes code can write it in a way that has these capabilities. So, hardware and software suppliers must work together to make operations optimally efficient.

MA: Do you think that the U.S. government will play a bigger role in sustainable business innovation in the future?

KW: I think the government has a role to play in driving this transition, but I don't see that happening very quickly. In the absence of the government playing a strong role now, we need to continue to look at the business case for sustainability rather than focusing on risk management or environmental compliance.

MA: What accomplishment are you particularly proud of as a sustainability leader?

KW: Most recently, my team and I worked hard to write a white paper called "The Central Role of Cloud Computing in Making Cities Energy Smart," which outlines the role of cloud computing in enabling new solutions for energy efficiency.

MA: So how do you really feel about your job?

KW: I have not had this much fun at a job in a really long time, and trust me: I've had a lot of fun at Microsoft. I'm not much of a cheerleader, but this is a big complex set of issues and everybody can do something constructive to improve resource usage and drive sustainability. This is a boat that we need everybody to get in. Everyone who wants to row gets an oar in this boat. The opportunity is significant, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the global community of the most innovative and creative minds comes up with to steer the boat in the right direction.