Creating Transformation Through Courage, Empathy, and Inclusion

Kate Johnson, WG’94
Kate Johnson, WG’94, former president of Microsoft U.S. and now president and CEO of Lumen Technologies, is helping create empathetic leaders.

Kate Johnson, WG’94, former president of Microsoft U.S. and now president and CEO of Lumen Technologies, believes timing is everything. Her pre-spring 2020 insights for how corporate leaders, including herself, could better empower employees to drive change through courage, empathy, and inclusion were well ahead of the upheavals awakened by both the global pandemic and the concurrent widespread protests that demanded solutions for longstanding social injustices.

Leadership became an important issue throughout the pandemic as managers in every industry and on every continent grappled with so many changes that had independently and simultaneously undermined their ability to lead. And Johnson, at that time heading a $45 billion solutions and services 10,000-person field team, had been perceptive enough to realize monumental change was in the air. The urgency for transformation was compounded by the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the resulting social unrest.

But in advance of these world-changing events, Johnson believed the time was right for making Microsoft’s internal and external diversity and inclusivity agenda a major priority. In 2019, the unifying theme of Empathy in Action was chosen at Microsoft U.S. because “if there’s one common skill required to achieve success, it is empathy,” said Johnson. She explained that empathy is the critical skill of leaning in and opening minds to the opinions and perspectives of others — of listening so intently that you begin to feel the other person’s emotions.

“Focusing on building empathic muscle and exercising it — at scale — turned out to be good preparation for the year 2020,” she said. In January 2020, Johnson designed a company trek to Atlanta where employees worked at creating a narrative of what an empathetic and inclusive workplace would look like. Little did Johnson know that keeping workers connected on a human level would be precisely what needed to happen in the coming months.

“As the lockdowns took place, the need for maintaining human connections connections, albeit virtually, became critical,” she said. “Simply by understanding the narrative story of each of our co-workers, whether they were parents to young children or caregivers to aging parents, became a way to really understand each other’s unique situation. “This is the first step to building empathy. It is called proximity, and it is a powerful skill.”

Fast forward to today, and Johnson has created a lasting way to keep the momentum of transformative empathy growing and spreading with the establishment of the Empathy in Action Fellowship Fund for Wharton MBA students.

“My goal in establishing this fellowship is to continue contributing to the building of a more inclusive economy, community, and world,” said Johnson. “There will be a lasting impact in corporate America as these fellows move into workspaces where they lead in an inclusive way.”

The fellowship provides financial support to full-time MBA students at Wharton who are:

·      Leading workforce transformation by intentionally building diverse cultures.
·      Investing in underserved communities in ways that close the socioeconomic gap.
·      Leveraging business and community platforms to lead diversity and inclusion efforts.

“MBA fellowship awards make Wharton more accessible for students from all backgrounds,” said Johnson. The Empathy in Action Fellowship Fund is awarded to incoming MBA candidates whose applications have high merit and show a commitment toward transforming the business world.

Johnson added, “By joining forces with Wharton and rewarding students who are demonstrating impact in the corporate world or local communities, we are creating visible and well-prepared leaders.”

Kate Johnson invites anyone interested in supporting the Empathy in Action Fellowship Fund to reach out to Molly McKenzie in Wharton External Affairs to learn more: