Episode 2: Microsoft GM Shelley McKinley intersects fourth industrial revolution, inclusive leadership





Shelley McKinley, Microsoft General Manager of Technology and Corporate Responsibility, discusses the company’s mission, goals and projects around diversity and inclusion as well as rural broadband connectivity. She and Dr. Connie challenge listeners to think beyond current technology to the potential solutions and opportunities of artificial intelligence and how it can impact healthcare, the environment and community development in the future. Shelley also offers leadership advice that she has learned from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.


“It’s all of these advances in technology, like Artificial Intelligence, that are allowing us to take big data sets and use machine learning and computing on them in order to develop insights and take intelligent action—things that we couldn’t perceive before as humans. But it’s when you combine humans and Artificial Intelligence that you get the best results.“
Shelley McKinley
Microsoft General Manager of Technology & Corporate Responsibility

About Shelley


Shelley McKinley is the General Manager of Technology & Corporate Responsibility at Microsoft, responsible for helping the company reach its goal of eliminating the broadband gap, as well as focusing on diversity and environmental sustainability. She has worked at Microsoft for 13 years, serving in international roles and leading diverse teams from around the world. She is an attorney by trade and a personal advocate of diversity and inclusion, with a special interest in STEM education for girls.


Show Notes

Hi and welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. Today it is my pleasure to introduce Shelley McKinley, General Manager of Technology and Corporate Responsibility with Microsoft. Welcome to the show, Shelley.

Thank you so much for having me.

We are super excited to have you here and you know, this is the first time we’ve physically met and so I think this speaks to the power of online relationships and communication. But before we dive into what you do at Microsoft, we’d love to just know a little bit more about you. So tell us who you are. Who is Shelley McKinley?

All right, I was born in Missouri in Kansas City and stayed there until I was about five years old and then I moved to Texas with my parents and I grew up in the Dallas area and I spent many, many summers back and forth between Kansas City and Dallas. I stayed in Texas until I was about 21 years old after I finished my undergraduate degree and then started moving west. After that I spent about a year in Idaho as a ski bum before moving to the Seattle area to go to law school and then on to Europe a couple of times and working in Seattle most of my adult life.

So tell us a little bit about what Microsoft is doing, you know, we’ve known about the Rural Airband Initiative.

One of the parts of the roles that I have at Microsoft is I work on environmental sustainability issues as well as rural broadband issues, accessibility issues, for people with disabilities and human rights issues, all fall under our umbrella of corporate social responsibility. And that is not all the corporate social responsibility work that we do, that’s the part I work on directly. I have many colleagues that also do many other things that are related.

I’d like to dive into a little bit about yourself as a leader. I want to read this ’cause I thought this was a really cool piece of just information that I learned about you. So the group that you’re leading, the Technology and Corporate Responsibility group delivers on Microsoft’s mission of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more by ensuring that the opportunities of technology are available to all and used to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. That’s huge. That’s a huge mission statement and a big undertaking as a leader. So tell us a bit about your leadership style and philosophy to accomplish that mission.

Sure, well we have a great thing about Microsoft is we’ve had a brand new CEO about three years ago, a guy named Satya Nadella and it was a huge change for us, a huge cultural change for us. One of the great things Satya’s done is really kind of think about what are the principles of leadership, what are the things that make people successful leaders? I really enjoy his way of thinking about it which is generating energy, creating clarity and delivering results. Now every leader is gonna have strengths in different parts of that and weaknesses in different parts of that and so what I think my strength is really around creating energy. I’m a very energetic person. I’m very passionate about what I do and I think by doing that you can certainly bring your team along and you have to be able to bring your team along. You have to be able to articulate a vision and you have to set goals and you have to hold people accountable to them but if you’re not passionate about what you do, at least for me, then it wouldn’t work for me.That’s my strength. Creating clarity, that’s that clarity in vision. What am I supposed to do? What are we all reaching for? How can we have a common mission that really unites us as a team? And you’d think with the different things that I oversee, we have people doing a lot of different things and so having people really focused on what that core mission is, even though I may be doing accessibility or I may be doing environmental sustainability, which can seem very, very different things, we’re all very focused on this mission of empowering everyone around the planet. These things are very, very interrelated. So from a leadership perspective, I would just say I think you need to constantly be looking at what is my strength, what is my weakness. How do I do the best I can in my strengths and how do I certainly improve on my weaknesses and so always learning and improving and listening to others is incredibly important. I’m relatively new in this job. I’ve been at Microsoft for 12 years so I know the company relatively well. This job I’ve been in say eight months to a year so it’s something I’ve been able to learn a lot about and what I found is you have really smart people working for you. Listen to them.


So important because we don’t always do a good job of that, right?

We don’t. Listen to them, understand what they’re thinking about. What you will find is if you are open to hearing what other people have to say and to not being immediately set on the path that you think is the right one, you might learn something and you always will learn something. I found surrounding myself with other people who are as passionate and creative has always been the best way to success.

I know as a leader too, you are very inclusive and your team is very diverse.

It’s something I’ve learned over time. Before starting this job, I was in Europe with Microsoft for five years and I had the opportunity to work with people around the region and we covered 50 different countries which is a little more than Europe but according to Microsoft sales territory, that was included in the European sales territory and that included Mongolia.So that was part of my territory as well.

Wow, that’s cool.

But we didn’t have people in every country but I dealt with people that spoke different languages, that had different cultural points of view every day so everything was quite enriched by these different points of view and you can learn a lot. When I came back to the US, to Microsoft’s headquarters, I thought, “Huh, I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna get a “team full of regular Americans.” What I found, to my delight, was that in fact, when I came back I started working with a team that had people from all different cultures. I have a team, accessibility team, which I have I think four people who have visual impairments that work for me. Our Chief Accessibility Officer is deaf. She can read lips fantastically which is always, I’m always like whoa. I always forget she’s deaf and I’ll do things like we’ll go into the ladies room and I’ll keep talking to her when we go into separate stalls, then I’m like, “Oh Jenny, wait you couldn’t hear me, could you?” She’s like, “I thought you were talking to me.” But you know, she couldn’t hear. So you learn so many things from people like that. One of the kind of crazy things, the questions people ask were, “How do you say hello to a blind person?”


And Jenny says, “You say hello, number one, “number two, you ask.”So I learned I need to kind of announce myself when I’m coming down the hall and say, “Hi Ann, I’m on your right.” And then of course after she saw me several times, she knew who I was from my voice. Then when we have morale events, how do we make sure that they’re accessible for everyone? Research has shown that diversity, in the beginning, can make teams start a little bit slower as they get used to each other but very quickly, diverse teams achieve much, much more than non diverse teams. So working at a place that is diverse and inclusive is really one thing that I will not compromise on.

Could you speak a little bit about some of the advanced hiring practices Microsoft is really developing and I would say, leading in so many ways?

We have a couple of things that we do. We’re very focused certainly on racial diversity

and bringing in minorities. We are also incredibly focused on bringing people of all kinds of different skill sets. So I think we have to make sure that we focus on underrepresented minorities and we also expand our horizons as to what does diversity actually mean. Gender diversity clearly is one key thing. Bringing in people with different kinds of abilities. As a company our success depends on our ability to serve our customers. If we don’t reflect what our customers are, then how can we actually adequately serve them? We have a program that we recently started called the Autism Hiring Program and we were featured on the news recently, you may have seen that.

Yes, absolutely. So incredibly amazing what you’re doing.

What we do is how do we figure out how to make the best possible interview experience for a person who maybe doesn’t do well in the standard interview experience and so in that example, we bring people on campus basically for a week, who can work and show us their skills instead of having that one hour pressure cooker interview with a bunch of questions, a person with Autism generally is not going to love that type of interview and may not shine to their fullest potential. So when you bring them for these alternative types of interviews, you’re not sacrificing on quality at all but what you’re doing is giving that person opportunity to demonstrate their skills and your team will be so much richer for it.

I love how you’re expanding that definition of what it means to be diverse and inclusive but then also changing your culture, your practices, the strategies to make that actually happen rather than just giving it lip service and then not exploring, well what does that mean and how do we change as an organization to make sure this really happens and not just in a way to say we’re doing it but in a way to really make people thrive in that environment, which also of course, helps Microsoft, right? So if they’re doing well and if they’re highly engaged, Microsoft does better but also it is that representation of your customer base. So how do we better serve customers through our team but also knowing what our customer’s needs and wants are in a very quaint way, in a very cohesive way that increases that level of understanding? So how do you see, to recap leadership a little bit, how do you see leadership evolving in the future?

I think leadership is going to depend more and more and more on diversity inclusion. You cannot have leaders who aren’t diverse and inclusive who are really bringing everyone else along. I think that what we’ll see is technology leadership. The good news for people who don’t study engineering is that everything is going to continue to need the humanities behind it.

Oh dive into that.Tell me what you mean by that.


So everyone can breathe a collective sigh of relief. You can still study law, you can still study economics, you can still study social sciences. Because as things such as Artificial Intelligence really get traction we’ll have machines that are making decisions, right? So how do we make sure those machines make a decision in an ethical way? When you’re an engineer and you look at a problem, we like to say, you know, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


So when you’re an engineer, you’re probably just trying to get to the most efficient way to get it done, right, and so ensuring that not only engineers understand humanity and social sciences but making sure we have people in the technology industry that while they may love technology, they aren’t engineers themselves, they have a skill set in the liberal arts so they can bring to the picture to ensure that we develop using ethical principles but that’s built in from the start. Everything we do really has that sense of ethics and values built into it so we understand how does an algorithm work? How do we get from where we were to where we are in an intentional way. Not just in an engineering way that gets you to the most efficiency immediately.

At the Rural Futures Institute, that’s really what we’ve been exploring but I think what is missing from that conversation is exactly what you’re talking about. Humanity will continue to change and evolved over time regardless of technology but at the same time, it’s this interaction and what new jobs or careers or businesses will be created in this next generation economy that we see evolving. What does it mean to be both high tech and high touch in that economy so that the world does have technology and it’s used in these really thoughtful intentional ways like even, earlier today, talking about is it possible to use AI in rural development or community development in different ways? How do we take this concept and help scale what we do or make it more sustainable or even more impactful by leveraging technology rather than having every community sort of bootstrap itself and do its own thing? What understanding can we develop not only locally but globally around this? At our Institute we’ve been working with the Japan society. Japan’s very interested in this. India is very interest in this. So I think there’s real opportunities for rural in this space but at the same time, it’s also rural and urban. How do we bring these worlds together in a positive way?

Well I think we have that opportunity today more than we’ve ever had before. In every previous industrial revolution we’ve had, jobs have been lost and new higher paying jobs have been created. It hasn’t always been an easy situation. I think we have the opportunity in this revolution, this fourth industrial revolution that we call it to really be thoughtful about it and sure that what we’re doing, we’re reskilling people. We’re developing really quickly. The technology is just really changing things at just a breathtaking speed.


So how are we going to ensure that people have the digital skills they need to get these new, better, high paying jobs? When you think about, just go back to 1905 when you had, New York City was fueled by horses, literally by horsepower. Really not that long ago, it wasn’t that long ago. And then over 20 years, those horses were replaced with motorized vehicles. There were entire industries at that time that were built on maintaining those horses, feeding them, cleaning up after them, creating parking spots for the horse carriages and in 20 years, that was all gone and those people had to transition. We’re gonna have that same thing now where we have people who are in jobs today that are no longer going to be around but our ability to navigate this successfully and create new jobs and retrain people to take those new jobs is going to be critical to landing this industrial revolution in a way that’s much better than we’ve done in the past. So when you think about rural and urban today we have the internet that connects us all. At least that connects us who have access to internet and broadband and we know we’re facing a huge challenge in rural America on internet access and really on broadband access. I mean, most places you can still get somewhat of a signal. Not everywhere but you don’t want to sit there while your data downloads at just an excruciating rate. That’s not really internet. You have broadband speeds everywhere so as we get more broadband those rural and urban divides can be bridged. If you’re a kid, how do you access your homework if you don’t have access to the internet? It’s actually mind blowing for people who live in areas with good internet access. How would I actually do that? You can’t make a room more nervous today than if you turned off the Wi-Fi in the room and people couldn’t access their devices.

That’s absolutely true.We tried that with my nieces before. It’s like they went through withdrawal, just setting their phones over on the counter. But like you said, they’re learning through that. They’re living essentially through access in some way, shape or form and it’s not all just entertainment. It’s really advancing people’s lives through that technology.

Entertainment is great.

It is, absolutely.

We know that, I mean who doesn’t want to put a movie on for that kid while you’re driving across country. Now there’s no doubt, it’s a necessity of life. But when you think about advances in telemedicine, advances in agriculture, advances in, you name it, education, small businesses. Imagine not being able to pay your bills online. A small business not being able to access their accounting software. All of those things, if you don’t have broadband access in communities, how can you actually take advantage of the opportunities that the new fourth industrial revolution brings, you can’t. That’s something that’s critical that we are very focused on is getting access to these areas. Telemedicine I think is a great one too.

Oh absolutely, huge.

I think a disproportionate number of our veterans live in areas that don’t have great access, they’re also a community that really need access to good medicine and when you have to drive for hours to get to the next hospital, I remember when my grandmother, until she died a few years ago still lived in rural Missouri. So we had to drive her from Gravois Mills to Jefferson City to get to the hospital or to Columbia to get to one of her doctors and that was a good hour and a half drive. Now she drove until she was 91.

Wow good for her.

She didn’t like driving up to Columbia but when we would go visit her, my Dad was up there a lot and would drive her into town. Imagine if you could do that over the internet, over the phone. You could avoid a lot of your trips you make every year and you could have better access to more frequent and consistent healthcare. So these are huge issues that can be tackled with the internet and underpinning that isn’t just, it doesn’t just happen when you have the internet. It’s all of these advances in technology that are really, like Artificial Intelligence that are allowing us to take big data sets and use machine learning and computing on them in order to develop insights and take intelligent action, things that we couldn’t perceive before as humans. But it’s important back to that point that we talked to before is that when you combine humans and Artificial Intelligence, you get the best results. There’s a number of studies out on X-rays. How does a person look at an X-ray and interpret the results. When a human does it alone, I’m making up these statistics, let’s call it 10% error rate, when a machine does it, there’s a 5% error rate. When you put the two together, you end up with like an almost 0% error rate. So it’s important to think that yes, there will be machines that will help us augment human capabilities, that can help us do what we do in a much better way but we won’t be replaced by machines.

That’s right.

There will be certain things that get replaced by what machines can do better than we can do but you always have to have that person in the mix.

I think that’s such an important message for people to really think about and hear because I do think there’s sort of this alarmist futurist sort of approach to oh someday we’ll be, you know, singularity is gonna happen and we’re all gonna be like a robot or something but I don’t think we’re that close to it.


I’m not really worried about that right now. I think it’s more so like how does this continue to evolve and how do we get more people connected and in a way that helps them really advance their lives, just like you’re talking about. One of the questions we’ve been really focused on lately at the Rural Futures Institute is why rural and why now. I mean, so many people think it’s just a choice to live in rural, which in many ways it is but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s really quite complex and you know, the election

brought forward a lot of thoughts and feelings around this rural urban divide which we’d really see as more of an opportunity for our continued globalized world to grow together because in our rural areas we do produce a lot of the food that is consumed in urban, for example. We need those wide open green spaces as well for environmental sustainability so there’s a lot of issues around it but tell us what you think about why rural, why now and why is Microsoft really thoughtfully trying to help people get connected?

Well I think why rural, why now, there is so much focus on it right now. Grab it while we’ve got it. I mean, really it’s one of the issues of the time. We need to do something now while we have a lot of support behind it. I mean, a lot of people are investing in rural issues right now so I think you should absolutely take advantage of that 2016 election where a lot of those issues were forefront where we realized there’s a significant number of people living in America who felt they weren’t being heard.


And so now, we’ve got a lot of focus. Let’s leverage it while we can, for sure. I think companies like Microsoft, why do we operate in those areas, Microsoft has a long, long history of being local. We sell around the world in the same way that we think our technology has to reflect our audience, really our employees in some ways, very much reflect the world. Now we haven’t always been this invested in rural areas as we are today. We’ve invested in many areas around the world but we’ve made a concerted effort in the last few years to really think about how can we better serve people in rural communities and it’s core to our mission. Our mission is to empower every person on the planet to achieve more and that means whether you live in an urban area or you live in a rural area, we want to help you achieve more. And it’s not just about being philanthropic. This is good for our business. What I didn’t mention before on the diversity topic is our employees expect this of us. Our employees demand these kind of things of us. It’s actually good for the stock price.

It absolutely is.

Our employees are our biggest asset and I’m telling you they are a very passionate bunch of people and so no matter what happens in the news, you can imagine that my inbox gets hit with all kinds of ideas and requests for what we could be doing and so when we think this helps us attract and retain good people, you think purely from a Microsoft interest, beyond just our mission, our ability to execute our mission is dependent on us addressing these issues. So for a long time we worked in communities around the world because we’ve had sales teams and communities around the world. In the last couple of years, it’s been really a focus. We have a program called TechSpark.

Yes, tell us about that.

We invested in six communities. We have put an employee there who is from the community. So we didn’t put them there, we actually hired them from there and they’ve stayed there and so they work with the community to understand what do they need in the areas of digital transformation, education, connectivity, all of these different things that we work on in many, many ways around the world and really making that super local and understanding what the local community needs. We can build these models and think about how we can engage and we can scale things like that. Now right now we’re focused on six communities. So everybody always asks the question, “How do you come to my community?”

Right, right.

I don’t have an answer for that today but what I will say is that we know that when we invest in a community, we can make a pretty big difference in that community, much more than we can in say other areas when we invest in a smaller community and it’s fantastic to see the changes that can be made there.

I appreciate that local model but with the global implications and the global connectivity but really, having somebody in place there that knows that community is assessing those needs but also it’s good for the community and good for the business and I think that’s, you know as we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit more, I so appreciate you bringing that forward. It’s not just about giving. That’s not really what the corporate responsibility piece is. It’s partly that but it’s also about Microsoft doing well so it’s really creating that win-win for the social responsibility aspect, the environment, the people but also the company and it makes it a sustainable model in the long run and a growth model for everybody involved. I think it takes unique leadership and culture to be able to do that but I also think it’s a model, you’ve talked a lot about this, moving forward that more companies even universities are gonna have to start embracing in a richer, more dynamic way. How do we make this a win for everybody involved and how do you lead that? What does that look like as a leader?

If you don’t make models that are sustainable, it’s a flash in the pan of 2016, 2018 and then it all kind of goes away. You have to make sure that you’re really thinking about these things from a long term perspective. Grabbing the zeitgeist while we’ve got it and really making it work from a long term perspective and that’s why we’re so focused on actually being really local versus having such centralized operations.

So Shelley, what would your personal vision be for this rural urban dynamic and the use of technology and what would that be for you, like what would you love to see happen in the next five years?

I would love to see that if people want to stay in rural communities, they can stay in rural communities and have good high paying jobs. There have been a number of communities around the country that have developed into these sort of centers for technology people who can work remotely. That’s a great thing.


And if you can make the diversity of work in different areas, work from home, work remotely, enable all of that via this technology, it’s actually in some ways quite simple once you get used to it because it really is just a, in some ways, just a telecommunications to start with but people are so used to being in their office all the time. So you think oh if I’ve got a big high paying job in Omaha, I can’t actually do that job from another place in Nebraska because I have to be in my chair at the office but if we can really start getting a culture around people working remotely, taking advantage of technology, then we can enable people to have good, high paying jobs and they can live where they want to live and these communities can flourish. Some of the products we’re doing, I’m really hoping that we can get to really see some progress in those areas over the next five years.

I appreciate how you’re saying, “Good, high paying jobs.” I mean, it’s not something where it’s just barely scraping by. The vision is bigger than that and the possibilities are bigger than that.


I’d love to know and our listeners would love to know what are some practical pieces of advice that you could give them as leaders, as entrepreneurs, as people doing amazing things in their world.

I think the time is now as we’ve established. Really the time is now for a lot of these issues. Technology, we are really on the brink of this fourth industrial revolution. We need to take action now and I think our students are so great at that. They have, in some ways, such a blank slate. No idea is a dumb idea. Now I think when they get into the workforce, it is a challenge thinking oh I don’t really know anything, I haven’t had years and years of experience but what I find is when I talk to our youngest members of Microsoft or people who have started a new career, that’s also another great one, they have such a fresh perspective. We need that fresh perspective to advance so don’t be shy.

Okay but before we wrap up, I have to dive into something you said there. You said, “starting a new career.” So tell me more about that.

Super important and the thing that’s really cool is when I think about what our kids are doing today and they switch platforms left and right, whereas when we were in school, if you got a new update to your Windows, you thought, oh my gosh how am I gonna use this? Our kids are so flexible now.


So I’m not as worried about later like our kids being able to change careers.

We’re very natural, right.

People in our generation need to do and we’ve gotta help people who are, when you think about technology advancing, we need to make sure people aren’t left behind and that today really means about people starting new careers and if you are hiring someone, be open to someone who has changed careers. Understand that they’ve got years of experience behind that, that could also be something really important for what you want to do. So when you look at a resume of someone who’s maybe had a gap in employment for whatever reason, understand that they actually have years of experience that they can bring to bear to start something new. Be open to those kind of opportunities. If I did something, if I was a truck driver and I was replaced by automated vehicles, that person’s gonna have to look for a new job. They maybe acquired some more skills and so as a hiring manager, I need to be open to hiring not just the person who has exactly the right skills and experience but a person who has a perspective that I don’t have today. One of the things I forgot to say earlier that I had on my mind and forgot about it was one of the most important lessons I learned as a manager was from someone who gave me an anonymous piece of feedback and we have a tool for it and said you know, “Shelley is very focused on diversity and all these things but she tends to hire people who are just like her in terms of extrovert versus introvert.”

Oh interesting.

It was an aspect of diversity that I had not thought about. I thought, I mean like I love this person, they’re so enthusiastic and they’re bubbly and they’re amazing and then I would go for that candidate versus like maybe someone who’s a bit more reserved. I looked across my leadership team and I thought, wow. I had one person one time on my leadership team who was an introvert and I was like, I really hope that he’s the one that gave me that feedback but I thought, you know what? He’s absolutely right. I’ve unintentionally hired people who are like me. So it’s something to be, it was a great learning experience for me, it’s something to be really, really aware of as you’re thinking about the teams you build and you work with and you’re thinking about how the discussions we’re having need to be built and formulated. Unconscious bias is something we talk about. It’s just how it’s been named but everyone has it.

Thank you, Shelley and thank you all for joining us at the Rural Futures podcast. Here’s to creating your best future.

Thanks for listening to Rural Futures with Dr. Connie. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at Rural Futures and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss an episode. Next up, we talk higher education for entrepreneurship with Dr. Tom Field. Dr. Field is innovating education within the University of Nebraska, Engler Agribusiness and Entrepreneurship program.

A new economy will be called the side gig economy as robotics and Artificial Intelligence and too much process oftentimes and regulatory environment, all those things sort of press on people. What they’re gonna do is they’re just gonna get creative and they’re gonna do side gigs and if the side gig economy is where we’re going, the institution least prepared for that is the university.