Motivating Employees When You're the Underdog
Microsoft Online Executive in Asia Ensures Workers Rise to New Challenges
(Please see corrections and amplifications item below.)
Sanjay Chheda, head of Microsoft Corp.'s consumer and online business in Asia, faces one of the more difficult challenges in his industry. In a world where Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. command more than 80% of Internet searches, Mr. Chheda must find a way to popularize Microsoft's Web services or be left with a shrinking piece of the online-advertising pie. In Asia, he also faces stiff competition from search engines such as China's Baidu.com Inc. and NHN Corp.'s Naver.com of South Korea, which dominate their local markets.
Mr. Chheda's first stint with Microsoft was in the summer of 1991 as an intern working on Microsoft Word for Windows 2.0, the company's word-processing software. Microsoft Word was then the underdog to the popular WordPerfect, now owned by Corel Corp. Mr. Chheda watched how Microsoft rallied as a team to defeat Goliath, and he kept this sense of mission with him as he rose through the ranks.
Since joining Microsoft 17 years ago, Mr. Chheda has held a variety of jobs across marketing, product planning and program management, most notably as Microsoft's chief deal-maker, responsible for acquisitions, strategic investments and new ventures, and later headed Microsoft's sales of special-purpose embedded devices for cell phones and other electronic equipment to partner companies. He now manages Microsoft's consumer software and online units across Southeast Asia, Japan, South Korea, India, China and Australia.
He played a key role in the recent launch of Bing, a new search engine Microsoft hopes will win over fans with language refinements targeted at users in Asia. Mr. Chheda will oversee Bing's regional rollout in the coming months, focusing on Japan, China and Australia. His teams also will work closely with units in China, Japan and India to gear the search engine to the needs of users there.
Mr. Chheda, a 42-year-old American, was born to Indian immigrant parents near the northern New York State city of Buffalo, and went on to earn economics and computer-science degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. After a stint in a junior analyst program at Salomon Brothers, the now defunct investment bank, in New York City, he enrolled in the MBA program at Stanford University. When Mr. Chheda joined Microsoft in 1992, he was one of just 11,000 workers. The company now employs more than 95,000 people.
Wayne Ma spoke with Mr. Chheda in Singapore. The interview has been edited.
WSJ: In this challenging economic environment, have you had to cut costs?
Mr. Chheda: We've had to get our costs in line with revenue; the best way to do that is to share information and explain to people why we're doing it, rather than saying, "Here's your cost cut, live with it." If you help them understand the objective and treat them as equals and partners in the business-planning exercise, you get the support of the team and also harness their creativity.
WSJ: What did you learn from your experience in investment banking [at Salomon Brothers] and is Microsoft still looking for merger and acquisition opportunities in Asia?
Mr. Chheda: At Microsoft I worked on several acquisitions and deals, including the IPO of the travel Web site Expedia.com. From my investment banking years, I knew how to integrate new businesses to create value, and I knew how to work with bankers on transactions.
Microsoft is certainly looking at strategic opportunities in Asia, but it might not always take the form of an acquisition. Because the environment has gotten tougher, everyone has been looking for opportunities to partner and grow market share without increasing costs. Valuations are also more reasonable, and that makes some deals more attractive. There are probably more opportunities to do deals and partnerships than ever before.
WSJ: What do you look for when considering job candidates?
Mr. Chheda: I've held many jobs at Microsoft, and they often involved the company taking a bet on me to do something I perhaps didn't have the full suite of experience to do. It might be a smart bet for a company to give someone with enough of a track record the chance to step into a role they might be somewhat unqualified for. Some of the best decisions I've made were taking bets on people; it's been satisfying to watch them thrive against a new set of challenges.
WSJ: Do you think an MBA is important?
Mr. Chheda: You can't get nuts-and-bolts skills at educational institutions. That said, getting an MBA is a great way to prepare or enhance a career in business, and I'd strongly encourage it to anyone who is considering. However, I'd tell them to first go out and get substantial work experience. You can learn so much more in your academic program if you come into it with more context.
WSJ: How do you motivate employees when you're the underdog in the online-search market?
Mr. Chheda: People need to believe we have a plan to get back to leadership, and it's also important that they understand our commitment and strategy. We face some stiff competition today and better competitors than ever. But Microsoft has a long history of succeeding against competition. I love to tell the story of Word for Windows 2.0, because most people don't realize that Microsoft wasn't always the winner there. At the time, we knew our product was going to be better than WordPerfect's product, and we were going to tell that story to the world. We're a company that's good at rallying and responding to the competition.
WSJ: What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Mr. Chheda: There were some countries where our financial performance wasn't fully what we wanted, and I had to go in and take a look at our sales structure. In one example, we were trying to launch too many aQuantive [Microsoft online advertising] products at the same time. I learned that if you have a small team trying to sell too many products at once, you're not going to succeed. Focus on doing a couple of things well and gaining acceptance for them before reaching that critical mass to add new ones.
WSJ: How do you communicate with your employees across Asia?
Mr. Chheda: Some face-to-face contact is essential, especially when you're ramping up and getting started in a new role. You really need to spend time with people in a somewhat unstructured way to learn who they are, how they work and what their interests are. If you invest in that personal connection in the beginning, it makes it so much easier to connect on issues over the phone or video conferencing. In Singapore, we do video calls with teams in each country every month to review their business performance.
Corrections & Amplifications
Sanjay Chheda, head of Microsoft Corp.'s consumer and online business in Asia, previously ran the company's sales of special-purpose embedded devices for cell phones and other electronic equipment to partner companies. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated he had been head of sales for Windows Mobile software.