Educating the market
After a plethora of senior Australian corporate roles and an international appetite George joined Microsoft in 1999 and has held a range of senior leadership roles. George has lead the extensive Microsoft business partner ecosystem across Australia - spanning sales, marketing, strategy, channel partner and certification programs.
For the last 5 years George has led the Education business for Microsoft. In this role he actively lead Microsoft’s efforts to support and increase technology’s role in the classroom.
As the modern workplace is constantly evolving, so too should our classrooms and cloud technology integration is absolutely crucial in this matter. George has witnessed first hand how transformative technology can be.
“Be humble and you won't stumble”
My story - George Stavrakakis
I’ll start with what I do today. I look after the entire sector of Microsoft’s Australian education business - which includes marketing, sales, our academic programs, and our partnerships. It is an interesting sector, from 9,500 schools to all the universities, TAFE’s, and anything in between. It gives me a deep look at some of the issues being faced by some of our schools and systems and some of the great work going on across the sector as well.
Invariably, in amongst all that, is a whole bunch of innovation that’s being driven by the ‘ecosystem’ as I like to term it, through the relationships and partnerships that we have in schools and our business partners. So, it keeps me busy!
There are a lot of stakeholder groups to keep happy and everyone has an opinion. For example, playing out in the media about the Gonsky Review on school funding – from funding through to the impact of technology inside and outside the classroom for learning. There is a range of stakeholders that we engage with and we try to be as relevant for them as we can be.
I feel humbled, and in some ways, embarrassed, at leading the education team at Microsoft given I didn’t go through a formal academic pathway to where I am in my career. I was a notoriously terrible student, but as I look back, I reflect on moments in time and people within that journey that had an impact on my career. It was probably more by accident than anything that was thoughtful as I wanted to be a professional soccer player and I clearly wasn’t anywhere as talented as what I thought, anyway.
So, that was probably the harshest lesson – being told that I wasn’t good enough. Then I had to go and look for something else to do. I followed the soccer path for a while, longer than what my mother and father wanted me to. I got to about 20 or 21 and it was like, “Are you finished?” “Can you go and get a real job?”
That experience helped me build resilience in terms of being rejected. So, I looked in the mirror and decided I wasn’t going to go down that pathway as I wasn’t good enough. And that was ok! Even though people like Harry Kewell were earning more than the whole AFL League together (or something like that), it wasn’t about the money. I’m motivated by an outcome that I’m driving or a particular cause and I bring that back to what we do here today.
I’m not, for one minute, espousing that we (Microsoft) have the be all and end all in terms of making an impact in education but we have a small part to play with technology and working with stakeholders. I think you’ve got to be really passionate about the cause that you’re driving and the impact that you’re seeking to make. And it’s not necessarily the financial rewards that motivate someone. It certainly doesn’t motivate me.
Looking back at the ‘accidents’ that shaped my career, being rejected as a pro soccer player was one. There was a gentleman named James MacIntyre, who was a coach of mine, who offered me a job at the former Gas & Fuel Corporation in Melbourne. (People may recall the ugly old buildings on Flinders Street on the site that is now Federation Square.) Again, I came in at a time that was rather fortunate as, unbeknownst to me, there was a big chance going on in that sector. They were going through a huge privatisation strategy and I was working in the personnel or payroll department and was fortunate again to just be exposed to that whole restructuring process and program and got onto a whole range of working groups as part of that process. And, before I knew it, 9 years later I was heavily entrenched in industrial relations reform and a human resource management pathway.
They did attempt to help educate me in a formal sense, as a mature-age student at RMIT, but I only lasted a semester. That was hard work. If I had the opportunity to speak to myself as a young person, I probably would have counselled myself to stick that out. So, there is a little bit of regret about not completing any sort of formal training. I’ve done lots of training and formal courses since that, but I really struggled with the theory.
I’ll never forget being in that lecture theatre with a couple of hundred students, and I was around 26 or 27, really being in that thrust of industrial relations reform through at a practical level and then listening to (I hope I don’t offend here) an academic give me the theory of Maslow’s hierarchical needs and, “This is how you should negotiate with the trade union movement”. So, I really struggled to make a connection with that application. I think institutional learning is far more practical these days but, then, it was more theoretical.
I remember walking out of the lecture theatre and going back to the office. There was a trade unionist there, a gentleman by the name of Leo Gilman, who I was working really closely with in the context of the changes we were driving from the corporation’s industrial reform program. He was one of my early coaches and mentors even though, technically, he was on the other side. I was on the white-collar side and he was on the blue-collar side. He was an amazing individual who was incredibly pragmatic and balanced in how he approached negotiations and building relationships and driving to outcomes that were win-win for everybody.
So, that was probably one of the really early lessons I embarked on back then, but I probably didn’t know it at the time. It’s only as I look back and reflect on some of the approaches of the time that I realise I am probably still drawing on those experiences. I’ve carried a lot of those learnings and experiences throughout my career, after moving on from the Gas & Fuel – negotiations, relationship-building, being clear on what a win-win may look like in building partnerships. So, those soft skills and technical skills have probably been further refined but I was lucky enough to be exposed to those individuals in a really dynamic environment back then.
Just to give you some context, the Gas & Fuel Corporation went down from around 8,500 employees to around 500 or 600, so the impact on people, the negation or re-negotiation of employment contracts, that really had a personal impact on people as much as the business outcome in a highly-unionised environment, so that was quite sensitive on many fronts. And again, I’ve carried those learnings forward in every other role that I have undertaken and been fortunate to apply them. Having the empathy and having a curious approach to the way that you deal with things, as opposed to being black and white where, in the heavily-negotiated environment where there is a lot of claims and one side says, “We’ll stand here!” You have to find that middle ground, so how you get there is part of the magic.
My move to Microsoft wasn’t planned. I was at Gas & Fuel for 9 ½ years and I was really lucky – doing really well in a highly-dynamic environment. I’d been exposed to a high level of management philosophies and trends and professional learnings. I remember Gas & Fuel spent a lot of money on professional development but again, that’s only when I reflect back. Back then, total quality control was the rage and you got certified for that, and a whole, rich tapestry of professional experiences that you’re exposed to.
The one thing that kept eating away at me, though, was that I never really wanted to be a life-long bureaucrat/public servant and so I used to go and do an external interview every year to try to keep myself relevant. There was a gentleman by the name of Bevan Turner, from Drake Consulting, that I got to know and every year, I would go and meet him and he would attempt to place me. We’d go through the entire process right from the job interview, with other organisations, but I would never end up accepting the offer. There were a few times when I was offered the role but it was my way of sharpening the saw in terms of my skill set – getting that feedback and then taking it back into what I was doing at Gas & Fuel.
Again, reflecting on these moments in time, I was just about to hit the big ‘three O’ (which was no big deal) and was coming up to ten years at Gas & Fuel, and we were expecting our first child. I remember sitting down with Bevan and he said, “Look, I’m happy to go through the process again, but you have a decision to make. You’re coming into that age and tenure where you’re being stereotyped and I think I might find it difficult to place you but why don’t we go through the process anyway?” So, we went through it again and I got an offer from another organisation before deciding not to proceed, and I remember going home and saying to Anna, “You know what? It’s time for me to really move!”
That spawned a real focus on what I wanted to do and “Where to next?” whilst everything was really rosy and comfortable at Gas & Fuel. So, it was really easy to stay there, to be honest. But, I had a couple of friends working in the tech industry and I remember meeting with them and comparing careers and pathways and all that sort of stuff. I couldn’t believe the international experience they were getting and there were elements in their roles that they were doing that were really appealing. And, I loved the dynamic nature of technology, even though I am not really a technologist – I was a HR person.
I basically went back to Jim McIntyre, that coach who still happened to be my boss at Gas & Fuel and said to him, “James, I’m looking at these particular industries – what do you think?” I remember (and I won’t do his heavy Scottish accent) “You know what? This tech stuff, there’s something there. There are some legs in it. Why don’t you just pursue that?”
I then went to work with a company called Health Computing Services, implementing their payroll/HR system. It was still in the discipline that I had gained experiences from but I started to get exposed to and had experiences in the tech sector. I worked there around 7 ½ years and got into sales, not just consulting, there and, again, had wonderful coaches and people to grow and learn from throughout that period.
In 1996-98 I then moved into a small Australian company called The Power of 10 - I laugh as I reflect on big data today and artificial intelligence and neural networking - and I remember working for this organisation and they were implementing the balanced scorecard to the corporates. They were probably some of the toughest couple of years. Whilst it was fantastic and we were successful, we were almost educating corporates on the Norton balanced scorecard and the impact it had. We actually built a product that measured organisational efficiency and impact, not just on the financial basis but also on people, assets, and brought all that insight together. But, they were large, complex consulting engagements with really hefty technology investments. I reflect today at where we’re at. On how commoditised artificial intelligence and machine learning is and the access of data for people in businesses to make decisions and insights into either their lives or the business. But back then, it was quite unknown for anything non-financial to be on your scorecard.
1998-99 was kind of the pinnacle, but we had product ties to service to give it more accessibility for boards and business leaders to get that level of insight. So, again, I felt we were educating the market as opposed to it being mainstream.
That led me to Microsoft, which was again completely by accident. I was the southern regional manager for The Power of 10 and we invested a whole bunch of money in building the product. I remember the product team at the time using Oracle and Red Brick – what I would term as high-end, classical enterprise-grade products – and this gentleman by the name of Des Jacobsen walked in. He happened to be the Microsoft Sequel (SQL) Server guy. I am certainly not technical but I remember going back to the product lead saying, “There’s some guy wanting to talk to us about Sequel Server. Whatever that is!”
Unfortunately, technologists can get almost a bit religious and I remember going to my head lead and he gave me all the reasons why we shouldn’t talk to this gentleman – who was a really nice guy. But I said we should have a chat to him anyway. So, we then did a little bit of work with Microsoft, using their Sequel Server database, which was great.
Then I really wanted an opportunity to work in a global organisation so I had a chat with the Microsoft team and, 17 years later, here I am! I didn’t deliberately go in and ask to work with them. It was more maintaining relationships – we were doing business together – and an opportunity came up that felt like the right thing for me to pursue. It happened to be the right role, right time, and right moment and all those elements.
It was certainly a great opportunity because it unpacked more of what they do and – as crazy as it sounds – I really didn’t have a deep understanding of the tech sector and the vendors anyway, to be honest. It was always client-focused and an outcome was driven with a range of assets and tools and IP. And I never really got into the role of “You know, it’s Microsoft or it’s Apple or it’s Google. It is what it is. It’s a means.”
I covered a wide range of roles within Microsoft. As crazy as it might sound – in the first couple of years – whilst I’ve spoken about global companies and going international and travel and all that sort of stuff. It was really interesting because, in Microsoft in 1999 – 2000, I was employee #24 in the Melbourne branch. One of the things that I loved (and it’s still a bit like this to this day) is that it was very, very small and felt very much in start-up mode. So, whilst there was this huge organisation and brand, the dynamics locally really felt like a start-up company. So, that was really exciting.
I remember my first sales meeting, being asked to turn up at 8 o’clock (or whatever it was) on the Monday morning and I was sitting at home, quite nervous. I asked the branch manager where I should meet him and he said, “We have our sales meetings at Caffé e Cucina on Chapel Street” which I thought was pretty cool. (We were at the Como back then.) I walked in and saw 10 people and that was pretty much the size of the company. So, I thought, “Hang on! Have I come to the right company?”
Since then, clearly, we’ve grown and the market’s grown. I was looking after the state government as an account manager and, with the growth of the company at a local level, I was really fortunate to step into and be provided with leadership opportunities along the way. I’ve worked with sales and marketing, worked for a period of time in our partner ecosystem, our channel business – which was a wonderful time, because that is, to me, the real essence of how and what we deliver to our clients is through that innovation that our business partners do - from start-ups, right through to traditional integrators and suppliers and consulting firms and that sort of thing. So, that was a great period as well.
Ultimately, all of those elements come together in my current role. When I look at where we are today, those elements are all brought under the banner of education and my role here.
I’ve been involved with reverse-mentoring situations here at Microsoft. I met a fantastic lady Oztern up in Sydney, who were in essence in start-up mode, running a graduate program and – just the insight and learning that you can get from people at any stage of either their career or their academic experience is incredible.
The reverse mentoring has given me a very different perspective to either what’s working, a lot of opportunities in the marketplace that we don’t look at through the lens of a fresh set of eyes. They certainly tell you what’s working and what’s not in a really direct way, which is wonderful. It builds agility, creativity, and resilience and gives critical feedback as to how we’re doing and how I’m doing as the leader as well.
I’ve always thought, for you to serve your client base, you need to be representative of how you service that base – so, if you have a bunch of George’s all in their mid-fifties and all servicing education, we’re in trouble. One of the tactical things I looked at was the talent base. We had incredible people contributing to our business and our clients but we could have been doing a better job representing our client’s needs in a more effective way.
So, like most organisations, we looked at a talent pool and really tried to find a balance between graduates, interns, and people who have had a vast set of experiences. Diversity and gender are, for me, really big topics of interest. We still have a long way to go as an industry in this regard as it sort of pivots on the superficial and we have a lot of work to do. But, unless you have a diverse team, I just can’t see how you can be relevant to your client base.
Quote and advice to self and others
Alan Davidson (a soccer player for Australia) said to me, “Be humble and you won’t stumble.” I think he threw that at me when I was around 16 or 17 and it has stuck with me forever. That’s something that I, hopefully, practice and try to lead by example.
Then, going to the other end of the spectrum of business leaders, I was really lucky a couple of months ago to spend a couple of hours with Satya Nadella (our CEO). We were meeting a bunch of schoolkids in NSW in our company store, and the one thing that I admire amongst many things about Satya was just how humble he was. I remember that a young autistic boy spent around 30 minutes with Satya, and one of the things that struck me was just how authentic and humble Satya was in that exchange. It wasn’t orchestrated or planned and he genuinely sat down and spent time in deep conversation with this child. That is the amazing ability to be humble regardless of who and what you are and what your title says.
So, “Be humble and you won’t stumble” is one quote that I live by. If you ask my team members, they would probably throw in “GSD” or Get Shit Done. I’d also say to be really clear as to who is doing what to who and by when because I think people really appreciate clarity. This empowers people to go away and get things done, as I am certainly not a very good micromanager. But, then again, some teams really do need directions to be quite prescriptive to get things done as well. So, as a leader, you really need to have a multi-pronged attack and the art of then knowing when to use those particular traits. It’s certainly a work in progress for me. I’m still learning and growing in that area. You can’t treat everyone the same but you can absolutely be humble and you can absolutely be open and curious in every situation.
Being humble is one. Plus, I always seek for feedback and encourage feedback. I don’t know if that’s a habit but I do it quite regularly with people that work with me. I don’t know if they get sick of it but they say “Oh, we’ll give you some feedback.” That’s sort of self-improvement for me. I don’t know if it’s habitual, but I am authentic about that. It’s amazing how many people ask for feedback and then, when they’re given the feedback, it’s not quite the feedback that they want so it’s like, “Why are you asking me?”
I try to be both open and receptive to improving – and I think that is a habit. It’s not just a moment in time. I do a lot of self-reflection in various forms. I’m practicing mindfulness and I’m finding that really hard, in a good way. But there is not just one thing. Exercise has always been a part of my life. I’ve always done that and that’s habitual. I’ve found that clears the head, the mind, the body, and the soul. It gives me space and I do that in various forms as well. That’s really important for me.
And I don’t know if this is a habit but you’ve got to have genuine fun. Creating an environment that isn’t that serious. I have no doubt that what we do has an impact. The technology that we use in the context of learning or healthcare delivers a better outcome. But, ultimately, it isn’t that serious. I just feel really blessed and fortunate in the roles that we have and I like to reinforce that with the team time and time again. We are really privileged in what we do and the organisation that we work for and we can have a whole bunch of fun doing it.
So, life isn’t that serious. To me, sometimes you can be quite internalised in first world problems so I think you have to keep hitting the relief button for people to be creative and to come up with ideas that are either helping to resolve an issue or, create an opportunity or deliver an even better outcome. I think that not being that serious has worked for me and I’ve found that in all the teams that I’ve worked with and the people that’ve worked for me as well.
Book titles, movie titles, song titles I’m terrible at but I remember tunes and I remember sound bites. Now, this is not a plug but I know you’ve spoken to Gavin Freeman recently and I was going to say Gav made me read his book, but he didn’t make me. And the reason he grabbed my attention was I loved the title, “Just Stop Motivating Me.” But then I really did read that book and things really stuck in the back of my mind about “How do you actually help people and empower people by not motivating them in the formal sense?” That was a really good read.
I tend to read snippets like Harvard Business Review and Management Stream, there are some great bits there. I’m always picking up a book and one of the things I keep telling myself to get better at is to complete a book. I tend to dive into chapters and read elements and snippets there. I am a big self-improvement fan. All sorts of books that I’ve picked up though jumping from airport to airport to occupy the brain build on new approaches and how to get better as a team and help people grow. I know I don’t spend anywhere near enough time on myself, so that’s something I am conscious of as well.
And I listen to a lot of your podcasts. To me, that’s a great learning environment. You pick up sound bites and experiences that people have had that you can take back into either your personal life, your professional life or a combination of both. My travel time is often a good time to catch up on this sort of learning, although it is also often my ‘unplug’ time, too.
I’m very active on LinkedIn. You can find me there and also on Twitter. Feel free to reach out. I’m more than happy to help people out.