Q&A with Ron Huddleston: Meet Microsoft's One Commercial Partner Leader

In Part 1 of a three-part Q&A from the Microsoft Inspire conference, Huddleston explains his philosophy on partnering and how his background at and Oracle is informing his approach to the channel at Microsoft.

  • Complete Microsoft Inspire 2017 coverage here.

Editor's Note: The original version of this Q&A referred to Huddleston by the informal term, "channel chief." Microsoft clarified that Gavriella Schuster still serves the channel chief role as corporate vice president of Worldwide Channels and Programs.

When a company says 95 percent of its commercial revenues come through partners like Microsoft does, calling anyone south of the CEO on the org chart the "channel chief" is a caveat-filled affair.

Traditionally at Microsoft, the face of the channel has been the head of the Worldwide Partner Group (WPG), whose office coordinates channel programs and policies, with dotted lines to channel executives all over the company.

The organizational structure changed at Microsoft officially on Feb. 1, when Microsoft Executive Vice President Judson Althoff named Oracle and veteran Ron Huddleston as the corporate vice president in charge of a new organization called One Commercial Partner that combined the functions of the WPG, parts of the Enterprise Partner Group (EPG) and ISV relations, among other things.

Microsoft still considers Gavriella Schuster to be its channel chief -- formally her title used to be corporate vice president of the Worldwide Partner Group, and now she is CVP of Worldwide Channels & Programs, reporting to Huddleston within One Commercial Partner. Yet obviously, Huddleston's influence over Microsoft's channel direction is significant.

Since February, Huddleston, Schuster and his other direct reports have been dramatically reorganizing Microsoft's whole approach to working with and supporting partners. He and his team began introducing the sweeping changes during the Microsoft Inspire conference this week in Washington, D.C.

Q&A with Ron Huddleston

• Part 1: Meet Microsoft's One Commercial Partner Leader

Part 2: Microsoft's New Partner Engagement Model

Part 3: Know Your Solution Maps and Channel Managers

Redmond Channel Partner's Scott Bekker and Barb Levisay had a chance to sit down with Huddleston during Inspire, and we're releasing the Q&A in three parts. In this first section, Huddleston answered questions about his background, how his experience at Oracle and is informing his approach now at Microsoft, and his philosophy on partnering.

The transcript is lightly edited for clarity.

Scott: You joined the Microsoft Dynamics organization in 2016 but moved into your current role on Feb. 1 of this year. What did Judson Althoff and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella want you to do with the channel, and what's your vision for the channel and what needs to be done?

Ron: A bit of history, I guess. At Oracle, they had pretty much gotten rid of their partner organization, in 2000 maybe, and so I had the opportunity to build up that partner organization in North America and I had spent some time in the one they had just dismantled.

When you're given a blank slate, you're able to really think through how do we actually get things to work and not have legacy behind you. There was some legacy but I was able to set up a really functioning partner program that included an inside component, a field component and all the technical components that we needed and then a nice delineation between the side of the team that was helping to develop the partners and the side of the team that was helping to deploy the partners into the customer base. That developed into something. That turned into something like 14 percent of the revenue, from zero, pretty quickly.

"Inside the company, people want to work with partners. Just that in itself is the biggest differentiator that Microsoft has. That is it. People here want to work with partners. I'll take that all day long over a perfect system because I've had a perfect system sometimes in the past, but I've had sales reps who didn't want it."

-- Ron Huddleston, Corporate Vice President, One Commercial Partner, Microsoft

Time at
Then when Marc [Benioff], who I knew at Oracle, was starting Salesforce, there were still things at Oracle that we weren't able to get around [to] just because of legacy and to set things up perfectly. He gave us the opportunity to set up what I would say, given the experience I had, was the perfect setup, the perfect model that gives partners access to everything the company can possibly do, and then gives the customers the visibility and choice of all of the partners that are available to drive solutions. Marc's idea at the center of marketplaces was helpful to the whole thing, but it took years to figure out the ins and the outs.

Microsoft Executive Conversations
Judson and I stayed in contact about how to organize these partner programs to make it really functional and to make it really work to generate new partners and to have it really execute against all that a company was able to do for them, and then bring the best partners into customers.

And so, when I was talking to Judson and Satya and even [former Microsoft COO] Kevin Turner for quite a while, I was just walking through philosophically, here's how a perfect partner organization would work that gives partners everything, all the support that they would possibly need and want with people who were aligned to helping the partner, not helping the company, grow. They will be in a little bit of conflict with the company from time to time because the company will want them to align to one product or another.

Their job is doing whatever is right for the partner to grow. And this team's job is doing whatever is right for the customer across all the partner sets to grow. And then the feedback, the demand here to here [gestures from one hand to the other] and then the drive from here to here [gestures from one hand back to the other] over a time period generates a really healthy channel and a really adept sales organization that knows how to sell solutions.

A New Approach to Channels at Microsoft
That tied in to what Microsoft was really interested in doing, which was developing a solution organization that leveraged their huge strengths. They have the world's biggest partner organization. So they needed to tie it together. And then in the center [are] solution maps. Marketplace is the most basic horizontal of a solution map.

And once you have a marketplace, once you have industry maps at the highest end, you've got the basics to begin improving your ecosystem over time because the map will help you essentially create a record of what's worked historically at different companies across multiple partner sets and get better and better and better.

[There are ] all these assets and all this incredible muscle that Microsoft has in all these spaces across this huge ecosystem. There's all this goodwill. Inside the company, people want to work with partners. Just that in itself is the biggest differentiator that Microsoft has. That is it. People here want to work with partners. I'll take that all day long over a perfect system because I've had a perfect system sometimes in the past, but I've had sales reps who didn't want it. It makes it really difficult.

If you look at what Microsoft has, and their rich technology portfolio and all the goodwill around partners, and what was holding it back from being able to execute that way were just internal things, just things that Microsoft could mostly solve. When you set it up this way and start looking at silos and barriers you can take down and control, it became a really interesting opportunity conversation for all of us.

Scott: You described this clean slate that you had at Salesforce. What are some of the issues Microsoft has on the legacy side? Are all the parts of the channel strengths, or are there certain areas where those partners really need to be redirected to focus with Microsoft?

Ron: I think any partner that has business with our company is going to be a strength no matter what. Period. No matter what. The trick, what we have to do, is make sure that whatever strength they have now, as the world is asking for something different, which we'll get feedback on all the time, that we give them the right tools and resources to decide whether they want to move into that world or not.

If they don't want to, they have a reason. And if they have a reason, then let's support them. In the end, that's what being partner-first is about. If their business model is to do that, well, then these people are measured on that. They're not measured on what we say they should do.

This is another part of the magic. It will just take everybody time to figure out. But just so you know, if you are aligned to someone who is supporting you that's partner-first and you happen to have a business model that doesn't fit with our strategy, it doesn't mean you're not going to be supported, it means you have the best chance possible to be successful. The whole point is if this other strategy is right, hopefully our idea of what successful is will converge at some point.