Todd Singleton on learning leadership

Todd Singelton Headshot

John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Todd Singleton would undoubtedly agree and has built a career on putting such sentiment into action.

The affable, expressive solutions GM for the Azure Data Group was raised a military kid: Born in Germany, lived on the East Coast, West Coast, and in the Midwest. A true global citizen, he called South Korea home for a period, went to college in North Carolina, and has spent the last twenty-two years in Silicon Valley.

“I went to Duke University, and my freshman year I got to walk on the basketball team. So, I played for Coach K for four years,” he says of Mike Krzyzewski, legendary five-time national champion and the winningest coach in Division 1 basketball history. “I still think that was the best class I ever took. Now, I didn’t get a lot of playing time — otherwise, I wouldn’t be in tech — but every day was an incredible lesson in leadership. Being with him two or three hours a day, on the floor and off, working with Coach K solidified my love for leadership.”

Perspective is everything

Here was a young man who’d lived all over the world, had a significant mentorship from one of sport’s greatest leaders, and would graduate with a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering bolstered by a Masters from Stanford. At an early age, he was instilled with a passion to study those who knew how to inspire great things from their teams, in sports and in the boardroom.

“I love watching sports because I love learning about the leadership styles, the coaching,” he explains. “Leadership on the field and leadership in business has a lot in common. I’ve been working on this for a while; it’s an area where I always want to grow and learn. Which is why I came to Microsoft eight months ago — I felt like my leadership style could land here, it could freely express itself here. I feel supported and there are a lot of like-minded leaders here.”

Culture over strategy

For years, Singleton lived and worked in Silicon Valley, but never thought of Microsoft as a company he’d ever call home. When a colleague from Intel came to work for Azure data, he found himself in an unexpected state: Intrigued.

“Fifteen years ago, Microsoft’s culture was less attractive to me, not the right feel,” he explains. “But speaking with her, I learned about the evolution of Microsoft, how the second act of Microsoft has been so successful, inspired real cultural change, and I fell in love.”

Singleton knew that in any organization, leadership is constructed from the top down. He immediately began familiarizing himself with Satya Nadella and other top executives. He came to believe that these architects and stewards of cultural change were the right people to surround himself with as he continued his lifelong interest in the successful balance of learning and leadership.

“I read Satya’s book. Obviously, he’s been focused on cultural change since day one. And we all know now that culture eats strategy for breakfast,” he says. “You always start with modeling the type of leadership, the type of tone you want to set. Satya makes an effort to model humility and model the growth mindset. It’s not just talk; it includes being vulnerable and open about your weaknesses, about who you are.”

Make the world a better place

Being a leader isn’t always about sports or the workplace. Leadership also manifests itself in those who seek advancement, equality, and social change.

“My dad grew up in Jim Crow South Carolina, and I said to him a year ago, ‘I feel like things are getting worse,’” he remembers. “When I was a young adult, I didn’t even want to do engineering — but since I went to a historically white institution, there was no way I was going to allow myself to be evaluated or graded in a subjective-type major. I didn’t trust the environment to evaluate my work in a non-biased way.”

It’s no secret that tech companies need to do more when creating a truly diverse workforce. Just this past June, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “the sector that has created the most wealth in California in the last ten years, minted billionaires and reshaped the San Francisco Bay Area in its own image … is functionally barely open to Black and Latino people.” Singleton is aware of this gap, in general, and specifically at Microsoft. As equality issues have risen to the forefront, he was encouraged by what he has seen from Microsoft most recently.

“2020 has been full of events, we have an awakened consciousness around racism that I’ve never seen before in my lifetime,” he says. “I’ve been very pleased seeing Microsoft’s response.

“When Satya made those comments, I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he adds, referring to an address Nadella made to Microsoft employees in May. “They were specific, non-apologetic, clear, and substantive. Real programs, real investment, real accountability, real numbers. That was phenomenal.”

Inspired, Todd Singleton is striving every day to combine all that he has studied — and all that he is now learning at Microsoft — into his own leadership style. “This is our opportunity to leverage the machinery we call Microsoft and tech to make the world a better place,” he says. “We can actually make an impact here. In fact, we have to. That’s very positive, and it speaks to the character of Microsoft. We’re on the right journey, with the right kind of leaders.”

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