"Grounded" is the first word that comes to mind when I reflect back on my conversation with Microsoft's Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton. Grounded not in the traditional sense of a child learning the boundaries under parental care, but grounded in the sense of "never forgetting his roots."
His professional achievements are stellar - he may live in Redmond, Washington, today, traversing the power corridors of Microsoft. He may have won awards like Microsoft Circle of Excellence awards - three times.
Yet, the first thing he shared with me was his story as a youngster growing up in Liverpool, England. He revisits whenever he can - to give back, mingle with people he grew up with and support Liverpool FC on the Kop.
Today, he shares the dais with Satya Nadella - even hosting the first interview with Satya when he became CEO. Stage productions, as Steve calls them, for product launch demonstrations are among the many things he does/done at Microsoft. And his journey to his unique job had an unusual start.
In his words, " I have been with Microsoft for 19+ years. I started off as a technical sales guy. In my early years, after customer visits, I often returned with one recurring feeling - there is more to Microsoft than what the majority of the world perceived. I decided to do something about it in my own small way. I enjoy writing. I shared stories that took readers behind the veneer of our colossal company - as blogs. This personal after work escapade continued for a few years.
One fine Tuesday night, I distinctly remember in February of 2010, I was home in London with my wife when the phone rang. The guy at the other end opened with "Hi Steve, I am Frank Shaw from Corporate Communications, I would like to talk to you about your blogs."
My first reaction was a sinking feeling, "Ouch, today I am going to get fired for the blogs?" I mustered my courage and asked, "what would you like to know Frank?"
Frank said, "I like your blogs and you have a passion for stories, I would like you to move to Seattle and do it full time for the company."
And that brought Steve to Seattle.
By this time in our conversation, Steve was on a roll. He shared with great enthusiasm the great strides within the spectrum of storytelling in the last 6 years -experiments that roll back the clock with science fiction books, experiments that are futuristic like immersive stories with virtual reality and many more.
As he spoke, his innate enthusiasm permeated through the phone. What was clearly visible - he was getting paid to pursue his hobby as his full time profession and he was relishing with delight.
"Any bumps along the way?" I casually asked. He paused a moment. His response stuck with me- "Six months into my job, I was ready to pack up and move back. It is one thing to be a well-understood technical sales guy, it is quite another to be in a job that is nascent and hard to define. In 2010, many did not get what I did for a living and it was hard to be taken seriously.
Surmounting many challenges, I was on the verge of publishing the first collection of stories on a brand new company page dedicated to stories. Some well meaning colleagues counseled me to get multiple internal approvals. That was the last straw.
At that point, I distinctly remember sharing with my wife that night - "I think this may be a mistake, this is not what I signed up for."
I expressed the same to Frank over a beer, a few days later.
He looked me in the eye and said "Just hit the publish button, you tell great stories and that is why I invited you and your family here."
My own memories, in my own living room.
Steve belted this nugget of raw experience like an animated water cooler conversation in his natural, casual undertone. While I was hearing his emotion packed narrative, my memories unpacked and transported me to my own living room.
In the background, Josh Groban was singing a song on YouTube. My 8 year old and 4 year old daughters, standing in front of the TV, join the chorus to this song (3.14 minutes in the song). The whole setting enthralls me. Every time.
Those powerful words in the echo of my daughter's voices capture the essence of many positive feelings I saw in Steve's story.
I was so moved by Steve's narrative that I sent an unsolicited note to his boss.
"Thank you Frank for plucking a technical sales guy with passion for storytelling and backing him up when his first six months were up. I was glad he pressed the publish button after his conversation with you. You make the belief in humanity stronger. Thank you for believing in people and backing them up. Sitting afar, I appreciate what you have done."
His response - he did take the time to reply!
"Thanks for the note Karthik! Steve is a great talent, and I love working with him. I am so lucky to have him on the team!"
Here I was, feeling driven to let Frank know that he brings a glow into this world. He, in return, gently reflected the glow back on Steve and made it all his own.
In Frank's words to Steve and in his note back to me, I see something that is rare in this world - an implicit belief in others both in thoughts and acts. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not - it is something most of us yearn for, in our own life stories. Steve found it in ample measure in his boss. This is a hero's journey, the hero is Frank X Shaw.
Summary - "Frank, You Raise Me Up." Why this Microsoft story Matters
My original intent on reaching out to Steve was to share his success story as a storyteller. Steve's intent to start blogging was to share Microsoft's story in the belief that he could help the company. Through his journey, he built a solid team with varied, impeccable backgrounds - journalists, speechwriters, artists and many more. His overarching passion - bring Microsoft stories to the world at large.
Yet, in narrating his own, simple interactions with Frank, he may have shared what is the best-hidden gem of Microsoft.
On paper, what draws talent to companies is great technology, positive buzz and awesome teams. Deep in the hearts of people, the anecdote rich, water cooler stories are magnetic draws that create grander legacies for companies.
That makes Steve's story among the best, long lasting story Microsoft can strive for. And in Frank, the world has a great mascot - an unwavering belief in the indomitable human spirit.
"Lucky" may have been Frank's choice of word in his response. I feel lucky to stumble upon the best story of Microsoft.
It is not when you give me all the tools that I levitate; it is when you believe that I can move mountains that I really soar high. Conviction [expressed by people like Frank] moves the world and Steve's success is a generous proof.