As much as I can

Frank McCosker leads one of the most creative and influential teams in Microsoft — the team that serves the UN, the EU, the World Bank ...


At the end of March 2011, Microsoft’s Frank McCosker took a walk around the lush green gardens of the United Nations’ new building in Nairobi, Kenya. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had just officially opened the building (the first energy-neutral UN headquarters building) in the presence of Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki. During the official party’s tour of the building, McCosker had helped to demonstrate its innovative green design features, including 6,000 square metres of solar panels, rainwater harvesting and energy-efficient lighting, plumbing and data centre systems. Now, from the gardens, McCosker looked back at the building on which Microsoft and other partners had worked with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) for two years. He thought about what Ki-Moon had said — that this beautiful, comfortable and efficient building was a living model of the sustainable future for Africa and the whole world. McCosker turned to a colleague and said, “You know, this has to be my proudest day at Microsoft.”

As Managing Director of Global Strategic Accounts (GSA) for Microsoft, McCosker is responsible for the company’s engagement with multilateral organisations such as the UN, World Bank and International Financial Institutions, as well as bilateral development assistance agencies. He says that, in the next few years, he anticipates a lot more days like the one he enjoyed in Kenya. “Our GSA partners are working on the big challenges of our time — human development, education, the environment, micro-entrepreneurship, human rights. Technology makes a massive difference to our partners’ operations and to the people they serve. We play an advisory and problem-solving role, and we get to be what Bill Gates called ‘creative capitalists’ — business with a social purpose. That’s tremendously exciting and fulfilling.

“Take the UNEP building in Nairobi,” he says. “It takes the two highest energy-using components of a large building — lighting and IT — and deploys solutions that work in Africa. The ITPAC (pre-assembled components) data centre system that was installed reduces IT power usage by up to 80 per cent, which is very helpful in a city with power shortages. It’s inexpensive, energy-saving and easily configured and maintained. It can be done all over Africa. And then the further impact is that Africa can start accessing cloud computing for connectivity, access to content and knowledge. You can have environmental sustainability and digital inclusion, hand in hand. That’s why it’s so exciting.”

An international life

McCosker was born in 1968 in Mexico, the son of an Australian UN official. He grew up in Italy and the United Kingdom, where he attended Stonyhurst boarding school in the Lancashire countryside. He says his parents and schooling were instrumental in shaping his choice of career and the values he brings to it. “I knew I wanted to live an international life and make a contribution to a better world,” he says. “That comes directly from my parents’ example. And Stonyhurst taught me independence and to stand up for my principles. I made around 15 lifelong friends there with whom I’m very close and always will be.” And while he enjoyed subjects such as science and music, McCosker says what he liked most was the way the school encouraged curiosity, individuality and responsibility. “Basically, you were encouraged to be as good as you can be at whatever you’re doing. Looking back, I can see that this was about instilling self-leadership. As well as providing good leaders to guide us, the school taught us to lead ourselves as well.”

McCosker also sees an echo of Stonyhurst in his own choice of motto, Quant Je Puis, which he includes in his email signature. “It came from a leadership course I did after I joined Microsoft. We were challenged to define our personal values simply and clearly and to articulate them so people knew where you stood and where you’re going, who you are as a person. And I chose Quant Je Puis, which means ‘as much as I can’.”

At university, McCosker chose to study business, graduating in 1991. He continued a passion for sport that had begun at school, and it provided his first experience of leading others. “I was chairman of the college hockey club,” he says. “The annual grant for student clubs was being spent mainly on political clubs. A number of us in the sports clubs wanted to change this situation, so we needed to get organised and take on the Student Union over the budget. There were a lot of procedural rules to figure out: we needed to motivate a lot of people to join the campaign, and we needed to be persistent. It worked. We got the sports club budget increased tenfold. That showed me that change requires people to stand up, get organised and lead the way.”

After university, McCosker joined ICL as a sales manager and was posted to Ukraine, where he spent two years. “It was just after independence, and there was hyper-inflation,” McCosker recalls. “The local staff members were looking for leadership on selling in that environment. We had to make enough sales by Wednesday to exchange for local currency on Thursday to pay people on Friday when there was a three-hour window of fixed prices. There were major consequences if we didn’t meet our targets: people wouldn’t be able to eat. We needed to inspire our team, to develop people’s soft skills and innovative thinking. And under that kind of pressure, we really needed to enjoy what we were doing.”

Fun, impact, recognition

His experience in Ukraine indelibly shaped McCosker’s views on work and leadership. “I realised that my approach to leading has a lot to do with figuring out how to deal with the barriers and frustrations that stand in the way of the team succeeding. I also realised that I prefer workplaces that value individuality and let people be themselves. And I realised that authentic leadership is all about values: defining them, talking about them and living up to them. At the end of the day, that’s what enables people to choose to follow you or not.”

The values McCosker has chosen to define himself by are fun, impact and recognition. “They encapsulate my purpose, what I believe in and want to achieve,” he says. “Fun means enjoying the journey and the people you’re working with. At one stage I was dealing with a very demanding boss by just putting my head down and getting on with it. My wife said to me, ‘Frank you’re not fun anymore, and I married you because you are fun.’ Ever since, I’ve made having fun one of my touchstones. Impact, for me, means helping to change things for the better and helping the team to do their best. And I want recognition, so that people want to join the team and get involved.” Purposeful leaders aren’t in it just for themselves or to tick boxes, McCosker believes. They connect emotionally with the work they do and the people they work with; and, as a result, they tend to give more and to gain more as well.

McCosker’s emerging ethos of ‘purposeful leadership’ found a natural home at Microsoft, which he joined in 1997 as a Partner Development Manager at the company’s East European Headquarters, focussing on public sector-related IT development projects. “I joined at a point when the company was realising the importance of partnerships for its own business success,” McCosker says. “And I enjoy developing and growing partnerships. It’s also a fairly horizontal organisation in which people are given a remit and a budget and empowered to figure out the best ways to get things done.”

In 1999, McCosker was promoted to General Manager of Microsoft Bulgaria, responsible for opening the company’s subsidiary in the country and initiating a number of strategic public-private partnership projects on e-government. “I like start-up work,” he says. “I like getting new things going, identifying and bringing in the people who will ensure they succeed. In Bulgaria, that meant growing a strong local team, which we did.”

The following year, McCosker was named Director and later General Manager of Microsoft’s East European Headquarters in Munich, Germany. In this new role, he was responsible for the region’s sales, marketing and services business and managing the headquarters team. He also led several public sector projects related to the role of technology in helping the new European Union (EU) member states from central and east Europe to meet the EU’s accession criteria.

Jan Muelfeit, Chairman of Microsoft Europe, was McCosker’s boss between 2000 and 2004. “We complemented each other very well,” Muelfeit says. “Frank is a very good listener and observer of people and their psychological needs. He has huge emotional intelligence and self-awareness. I was very focussed on driving the business, and I learned from Frank about the need to have a balance between success and happiness. And he learned from me about the running of the business and the numbers side of things. Even though he reported to me, it was a real partnership of equals.”

In 2004, McCosker moved to Brussels and the newly created role of Managing Director, Microsoft Global Strategic Accounts (GSA), Multilateral Organisations. The global nature of this role led him to further refine and develop his leadership values and methods. “I have a team of 15 people based all over the world, so we operate virtually a lot of the time,” McCosker says. “In addition, we collaborate with a very large number of people across Microsoft on the strategic projects that GSA is doing with more than 45 international organisations.”

Alethea Lodge-Clarke, Microsoft Programme Manager UN Team in New York, is one of McCosker’s reports. “We are a very diverse team from different backgrounds and Frank’s leadership reflects this,” she says. “He is very good at predicting issues and problems, and he is very open and a great resource of advice and counsel. He also instils a harmonious, fun-loving and united team spirit, where we all work hard because we love the team and we like to help each other. He lets people be who they are and he gets their best work from them and they are happy.”

“I want a lot of people to want to be part of and contribute to GSA,” McCosker says. “We have this opportunity to have a large impact because we are part of a very large company, and we are working with senior people at global organisations that are changing the world. To be effective we need to be neutral, fervently neutral, in all of our relationships and to earn trust through integrity.”

Values-based leadership

McCosker believes that values-based leadership is the key to that integrity. “Knowing where people are coming from helps you to uncover common goals. Building trust takes time, communication and proof. I will often ask people about the values they stand for and tell them mine. It creates confidence and space for dialogue on goals and means.” In fact, how something is done is almost as important to McCosker as the outcome. “A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Nelson Mandela’s house, where I saw a quote that I wrote down and sent to the team: ‘There is no limit to what man can achieve as long as he doesn’t give a damn about who takes the credit.’ What I like to do is think about what needs to be achieved and how, and then find the people to achieve it. In the GSA context, the ‘how’ means engagement and collaboration. And I really believe that if you work in the right way, you will always have a win.”

Achim Steiner, Executive Director at the UNEP, says McCosker is very sensitive towards partner organisations. “He understands the nature of international organisations and how to find people within the UN to work with. It’s more than just business for Frank. He looks very clearly at whom and what you are dealing with, combined with the ambition to do something innovative and groundbreaking — and [reinforced by his] persistence regarding big goals. He has a great ability to develop neutral value-added propositions and alliances and to navigate and move towards a goal through many, many steps. And, by nature, he’s a very engaging and down-to-earth person who is able to relate to all kinds of people.”

Geoffrey Lipman, Assistant Secretary-General at the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNTWO), concurs. “Frank is able to join the dots when other people don’t even see the dots. He has this capacity for seeing things ahead of their time. He also really understands win-win partnerships: he’s exceptionally intelligent and clever at doing things that help the partner organisation and are positive for Microsoft. I also admire his family values and the importance he puts on balancing lifestyle with work style.”

McCosker says his approach to building teams and partnerships involves connecting people rather than simply networking. “I try to connect people who I think will … complement each other’s strengths and get things done together. In the Gallup StrengthsFinders model, I’m a good ‘individualiser’: I connect people for whom they are as people, at a people-to-people level rather than function-to-function. I’m rather lateral about it, across boundaries and across barriers.”

McCosker’s model of personal learning is similarly eclectic. “I’m an avid reader, and I like to listen to and ask others whom I admire what they do and what they recommend. I also like the experience of trying new things, such as the Microsoft Frontlines programme, which involves active learning with our clients. Each client brings a problem they face today and we will work on it together. What’s fascinating about that is that, nine times out of ten, the ‘problem’ is not the real problem once you see it from other people’s points of view and get their takes on ways to tackle it.” McCosker’s colleagues and GSA partners also attest to his strengths as a ‘leader-teacher’, in which he draws on his emotional intelligence, business nous and communication skills to encourage others to develop and express their own leadership capabilities.

McCosker says there may well be, for him, a third or fourth career ahead; but, right now, he is doing one of the most enjoyable jobs he could imagine. Even so, he has some unfulfilled ambitions. “I want us to have larger impact on development. I think we can further evolve our execution so we are doing better with available resources. And I’d like to see us contribute to a more holistic global story about technology and development. We can’t ‘make’ any of that happen, though — it will happen if the partners think it’s worth doing. So basically I want the team to keep the pressure on ourselves to be the very best at this that we can be, until by extension the job is done.”

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