Soft Where?

Daniel Petre is one of only two non-Americans to have been made a Vice President of Microsoft, the multi-billion dollar software corporation based in Seattle and run by Bill Gates. Like Bill Gates, Daniel made his first run very early and became Managing Director of Microsoft Australia when he was only 29. He then went to Seattle, only to return to Australia to run Microsoft's regional operation. He recently left Microsoft to devote himself to his family - his wife and two daughters, a Ph D. in Behavioural Sciences and of course, his Harley Davidson.

This article is adapted with permission from an interview with Norman Swan on Radio National's "Life Matters".

NS: At the age of 29 you went to work with Microsoft, what was the challenge there?

DP: In 1988, we were quite small. In Australia we had about 20 people. It was a challenge to grow and I really shared the vision of where we could take the company and grow it. So I spent the next few years growing it quite dramatically. It was a fun time.

NS: So after 3 years you went to Seattle. Describe the working environment.

DP: The Redmond campus of Microsoft is the Headquarters. There are about 9000 people, mainly software developers. People wear what they want [and] they work weird hours. A very frenetic working environment. Very exciting if you like to work hard. But also very demanding, very obsessive. It works on a few fundamentals. There's a joke that you only work half a day at Microsoft. You decide which 12 hour period it is. It's very much about hours spent. People will often sleep in offices at night, get up in the morning to continue to work on a project. Those aspects are fine when you're young, but they aren't really family friendly. It's not that you feel the pressures from others but that you get caught up in the energy, in the excitement.

NS: What sort of person did you have to be to get where you were?

DP: Very driven. Your near total mind and body dedicated to making the thing successful.

NS: Did you and Bill Gates relate as common people outside the working environment?

DP: No, at that stage my youngest daughter was two and I couldn't get this business about working six days a week. We used to have regular meetings at 10:00 am Sunday morning or 4:00 pm Saturday afternoon. I, as First Vice President said, "Sorry I can't be there".

NS: Did you ever think about the nature of leadership?

DP: Yes. but those views have changed over time. It is difficult to think about what I felt 5 years ago, but now I would say that a leader has to embody a culture of a company that is holistic. You cannot be someone who just espouses the need to work harder. People in a company look up to the Managing Director quite obsessively as a role model. You have to take on that role quite seriously and you need to understand that in your role as M.D., you are impacting on the lives of your employees and their families. So a leader has to be very aware not only of the work goals but of the family goals ...[the] community goals for themselves and their employees. That's where I've moved over time.

NS: What made you move?

DP: The first chink in the armour happened with the birth of our first daughter. And then the next one was when my sister was killed in a car accident in 1992. I refer to it now as a wake up call. "What is life all about?" I thought to myself "What do I want on my tombstone?". If I were to die tomorrow, and it just said 'He was the Vice-President of Microsoft Corporation' was that going to be enough? And I just knew in a blind flash. No! It wasn't; it's not enough.

I decided to come back to Australia. Carolyn and I talked about that a lot and we decided that was the thing we had to do - to come back and help my parents, to help my brother-in-law and the daughter and just be there, and be part of it.

But behind that was the process of me saying 'there's more to life, there's more that I want out of life and can give to life. Being a Microsoft V.P., that's a very important role, I'm not trying to belittle it at all. But life is more than any job, in fact. No one could understand how anyone could give up being a Vice President of Microsoft. "You must have lost your mind".

NS: Did Gates understand?

DP: He didn't understand but he was very supportive, to the degree that he actually moved the Regional Headquarters from Seattle to Sydney so that I could have a job to come back to. But I think most people on campus assumed that there would be a period of mourning and that I would resume. They didn't see this as a life changing event which I saw it as.

Even before my sister died I'd started to work less hours. Most of the Vice Presidents were doing 60 -70 hours a week, I was doing 50. I was actually nicknamed the 9-5 Vice President. But our division tripled market share in 2 years; our revenue more than tripled. So I said, I'll succeed in the business goals but I want to live the life I want to live: I'll take my children to school every morning; I will do school canteen once a term; I will never miss a concert or a school event; I will be home in time to have dinner and to tuck them into bed.

NS: To what extent is a company that doesn't nurture the whole life of its employees inherently strong. Is this an inherent weakness in the company?

DP: Absolutely.

NS: But you have Microsoft that is growing at an enormous rate... there are lots of successful companies which last for a long time, built on people who work 70 hours a week.

DP: It depends on how you define success. There's a great book by John O' Neale called the Paradox of Success, it's all about the definitions of success. Unless a company defines success in the way they had helped people grow, helped communities as well as the financial success, then that company will ultimately fall over. Because good people will ultimately leave.

NS: What about the income cut that you will suffer?

DP: Yeah, there's always this carrot which sits there. But at some point you come back to how do you want to divide your life. And can you live within certain other constraints and if you can just do it.

NS: Do you feel you've gotten over the death of your sister, is it is still driving you to some extent?

DP: I don't think I'll ever get over it. I want to try to deliver what she might have wanted to have happen. For her daughter, and for society. So I think a lot about the things that she was interested in and how I can help move those forward. So in that sense she will [be] a legacy I will think of forever.

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