Chat with Sean O’Driscoll: Role of Communities, Leadership Lessons

This is the next interview in the continuing series which is featured here “first” in the Canadian IT Managers (CIM) forum.

Sean O'DriscollIn this blog series, we talk with Sean O'Driscoll: Global Senior Director for CSS Community and MVP Worldwide, Microsoft Corporation.
We started our chat with Sean on Friday where I profiled Sean’s background. We continue our discussion with Sean…

: Sean, with your many significant contributions to the industry and ICT professionals over a sustained and successful career, we thank you for taking the time to share your deep insights, experiences, and wisdom with our audience.

Sean: It’s my pleasure. I’m really not sure how significant any of my contributions are (beyond my daughters), but I certainly appreciate having this opportunity to talk to the community through this forum.

Stephen: Can you describe your current role?

Sean: I think I have the best job at Microsoft, if not in the industry. My title is Global Director for the MVP Award Program. But let me describe the role a little differently.

Every day, we all do a lot of things - we buy services, we buy consumer devices, computers, software, game consoles, we eat at restaurants, we attend events and shows, we choose schools – it’s an infinite list. Ignoring computing for a moment, how do we choose amongst all the diversity of choice available to us? We do what most of us have always done; we ask our friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues, etc – our personal “network.” We trust our personal networks – they are a different kind of expert – peer experts. But, there is a challenge with most personal networks - they are finite in size, expertise and experiences. What if no one in my network has experience with what I’m interested in? Then what?

Well, if you are reading this, you already know the answer – communities. I like the analogy of buying a camera as most of us have or can relate to the process historically. It used to be that the biggest influencer of what I bought was the retailer, the expert trained behind the counter at my local camera shop. But today, I bet many of your readers (if they enter a physical store at all) know as much, if not more than the salesperson, before they enter. Let’s face it; our “networks” have exploded in breadth of topics, ease of access, and value of information. On nearly any topic, I can find an online community of other users. I’m no longer bound by my personal network, but only by what I can search and find online.

One thing is true of every community, what makes it powerful and valuable to all of us are its experts; the gurus who answer the questions and share their knowledge and expertise with those of us asking the questions. Without them, the community really can’t thrive. They are the recognized, exceptional and accessible community leaders. And it’s the independent, real world experiences they have that make them such a trusted source of information.
I’m often asked to define communities and I think it’s common to want to describe their scope in specific ways, (i.e. communities are Newsgroup discussions, or Forums, or Blogs or some combination of the above). Many people have quite strong views according to their personal preferences. I have sort of the opposite opinion and in fact rigorously avoid defining communities in terms of the venues or technologies employed to host them. To me, community is anywhere users go to interact and learn with other users and fortunately, in my role, I get to be (in fact I have to be), venue agnostic.

So, my job is actually pretty simple and pretty gratifying. My team has responsibility for looking across the worldwide Microsoft Technical communities (Blogs, Forums, User Groups, Newsgroups, etc) in order to identify their most outstanding technical contributors to those communities and quite simply say “Thank you.”

We call these exceptional individuals Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals. This year, we have awarded just over 3500 elite community leaders in over 90 countries spanning over 90 Microsoft technologies.

Stephen: What leadership lessons can your share that would be of value to business and IT decision makers?

Sean: This is a great question and monumental in terms of topics – there’s probably a wall of books written on this topic. That said, I think I can keep my answer very simple – it’s about getting the absolute best people. Smart people, creative people, diverse people, experienced people, new people – but universally motivated and passionate people who believe in what they are doing and want to interact personally with those affected by what they do – the users. It’s also about great business and management fundamentals. Great leaders need to hire great managers and great managers need to find great leaders. I once heard someone say that managers are outstanding at answering the questions of what, when, where, who, etc. and it’s the leaders’ job to answer the questions of “why.” That really stuck with me and made me think about the “chemistry” of high performance teams and organizations. I love the topic and I guess that is the lesson – you need to spend as much time thinking about your people as you do every other part of your business.
In the next blog, Sean will share more about the power and purpose of communities, their diversity, value to business and their trends.

Note: When you belong to a user group, association, society or online forum--these are all examples of communities.

I also encourage you to share your thoughts here on these interviews or send me an e-mail at
Thank you,
Stephen Ibaraki, FCIPS, I.S.P.

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