Leadership Insights

At the Edge of the Possible

Finding clarity amid chaos


Lila Tretikov, Deputy Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Corp., shares how she empowers her teams to find solutions to society's most pressing problems.

September 14, 2023

Elena Rodighiero

Consultant, Egon Zehnder

Lila Tretikov

Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Corp.

“The biggest lesson that I've learned along my career journey and the biggest transformation I've had as an individual is refocusing from my own career to working with and helping others.”

Microsoft Deputy Chief Technology Officer Lila Tretikov has always seen herself as an explorer. She asks inquiring questions that enable her to tackle some of the world's most challenging questions by bringing together the right people – ​ artists, engineers, technologists, scientists and ethicists – ​ to answer them.

Lila and I had a conversation about her personal leadership journey, from moving to the United States as a teenager to her work as a founder, C-suite leader, and board member.

Read on for written Q&A and video highlights of our conversation.

The Power of Adapting to New Cultures and Disciplines

Lila, you immigrated to the United States as a teenager. How did you adjust, and how did being open to new cultures and disciplines shape your career?

I came to the states when I was 15, and I was alone. I packed this little bag with 25 bucks, and I moved myself to New York. I didn't speak any English, so it was a jarring change. But I think the biggest part of the change was a culture change. Coming from Eastern Europe was just incredibly liberating and, at the same time, terrifying. In many other countries, you feel like your future is mapped out. And here, you have this absolute freedom – freedom to succeed and freedom to fail. Coming into this new environment and surviving was hard.

But I think the biggest thing that you learn is that you never know what life has in store for you. The lessons and the changes that happen in your life make you so much stronger and sometimes make the outcome better.

You have so many seemingly disparate experiences and skills. Is there a unifying thread?

There ​ was a moment I was on campus at Berkeley, where I remember walking out after my physics class and suddenly realizing that everything is connected. And everything is math, ​ whether you're studying biology or you're studying art. Art, to me, is the reason we exist. It's a sense of wonder that we have as children, the question of why and the math and the science are there to guide us through the process of discovery toward answers, toward the next question. And without, I think, one or the other, we wouldn't survive. We wouldn't be human.

Is there a particular encounter that shaped your direction?

In the early days, my teachers shaped a lot of my direction. I lost my mother very early, so teachers were my family. And at Berkeley, I've met some incredible people that completely changed the trajectory of my life. I met my art professor who became my adopted mother. I met the head of the biology lab that helped me start my first company. These kindred souls that as you connect them you learn from them. It becomes the next piece of inspiration of how to shape the trajectory of your life.

What superpower served you best and what didn't serve you as well?

First of all, I think it's not a superpower; it's just my personal life song. It's the sense of wonder that led me and the desire to learn as much as I possibly can throughout my life. And I don't think it has stopped. If you take that, probably my biggest strength is finding clarity in chaos. Because when you are living and working on the edge of the possible, it's oftentimes complete chaos because people are trying everything. A bunch of ideas are emerging and you don't yet know what's going to win. I think my mind is really well attuned to finding the signal in the noise and creating clarity for my team, helping others find it, and bringing people together.

My downfall is my impatience. I think it was OK when I was the early stage founder, and it's served me well. But there's a limit to how impatient you can be. Because you can push your team, you can push your business beyond the point of breakage, and you need to understand where that point is because it's different for every team.

Was there a success that you regret? Something that felt like a success at the time but turned out not to be?

When I came to Microsoft, my first job was to take AI out of the lab, and it was quite successful, I would say, for the time being. AI was still in fairly early stages – it was image recognition, speech synthesis, language translation. They were really good, but very poignant technologies, that we ended up deploying. There's plenty of success in there, plenty of use in there, but if we didn't realize what was happening with large language models and transformers, we wouldn't be here today. So what happened in my first two years was actually productizing gen one. And then my last three years have been completely disrupting everything that I've done in my first two years. So you can say my first two years was a success, or you can say my first two years were a mistake.

If you had to characterize the best team you've ever been part of, what would that be?

The hallmark of the best team is when everybody brings something unique to it and everybody has a voice and is expressing it freely, but with mutual respect of other team members. So in order to do that, you need to have a lot of diversity because if you have a monoculture, everybody's going to think the same. And as humans, we are very much pre-programmed to like people like us.

So as a leader, you need to be very conscious about building the team that has all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of cultures, all kinds of competencies in it. If you do that then you must foster the culture of mutual respect around it. This is very hard to do. Because if you were brought up in quantum physics and I got brought up in literature, we are not even speaking the same language. So oftentimes, we don't have the fundamental respect for each other, unfortunately.

Fostering that mutual respect is really, really critical. But once you do, what happens is these different points of view allow you to build better products because it allows you to understand your customer better. It allows you to see the problem from different aspects and different perspectives that before you weren't able to. You hit this sort of resonance frequency at some point once a team gels, where you can move forward really, really quickly and the team can make decisions on their own.

"The hallmark of the best team is when everybody brings something unique to it and everybody has a voice and is expressing it freely, but with mutual respect of other team members."

How do you create a culture that encourages ideas to rise to the surface?

When I self-review at the end of the year, and I talk about the things that we've achieved for the business and the technology that we've moved forward, I think just as important, if not more important, is our culture and how we've moved it in the direction that we want. And the culture that we want is the culture of inclusivity and where we can allow for the quietest voice to be heard.

But at the end of the day, the culture is set by showing an example. So at Microsoft, you can email Satya our CEO, and he will respond. And you have to model that yourself. So as a deputy said, "It is my job to ensure that I am not deaf to voices that are trying to reach me."

What is your favorite book of any genre or type?

I have a lot of business books, of course. And nowadays, I read mostly science and tech stuff. But my favorite book is the one that I read as a teenager for the first time. It's a Russian book, book called "Master and Margarita." It's about good and evil, sort of the new version of Faust. There is a quote right at the beginning of it by Goethe about part of the power that always wishes evil, but always does good. (That's my translation.) But what is really interesting is that once you have the exposure and the privilege to work on technology products and programs that touch millions or even billions of people, the thing that you have to be very cognizant of is that your best intention can turn out really badly and also otherwise.

The law of complexity and the law of an unintended consequences is extremely powerful. So your accountability and your responsibility for the impact on your users, for the impact on a society, is paramount. It's bigger than anything that you can imagine.