Distinguished alumna 2019: Marianne Dahl

This year’s distinguished AU alumna is a top Microsoft executive, political activist and role model for many women

By her own admission, she is a pretty poor driver. But Marianne Dahl has no trouble steering software giant Microsoft safely through transformation and disruption. Dahl, who is this year’s Distinguished Alumna, recently took over the wheel as the head of Microsoft in Western Europe.

It’s not quite business as usual today here at Microsoft’s Danish HQ in Lyngby. Heads turn and faces register surprise, in a break with the normal focused efficiency of the place. It seems there’s a surprise visitor from the recent – and fondly remembered –past. Smiling, she stands in the thick of it all greeting the people who notice her in the foyer.

Today’s surprise visitor is Marianne Dahl.

She said farewell to Lyngby when she took over the position as Microsoft’s vice-president for sales, marketing and operations in June 2019. Prior to that, she had served as CEO of Microsoft in Denmark for four years. So it’s a bit unsettling to be back in her old HQ – without really belonging there. Now her secretary’s office is in Lisbon, and Dahl’s working day might just as well unfold in Amsterdam, Rome, Stockholm or Paris. But today she’s back in Lyngby, which presents its own small challenges:

“It’s actually kind of a strange experience, because I’ve reached a point where I’m almost a little helpless without people around me,” Dahl reflects. She offers her guests from Aarhus University a cup of coffee and then turns her attention to the point of our visit: a conversation about her appointment as distinguished alumna.  

“It’s surprised me how much being appointed honorary alumna means to me,”Dahl says about receiving the honour, which is conferred on an AU alum who has an extraordinary contribution to society annually. The first distinguished alum was HRH Crown Prince Frederik.

“It’s struck a chord with a deeply anchored frame of reference in me that gives me genuine joy and that gives me a perspective on my time after AU. It’s the kind of life event you can call home to your mum about. I’m genuinely proud of this honour,” she says.

A bit of a nerd
Marianne Dahl was born in Aarhus, but grew up in the much smaller town of Skive on the sparsely populated west coast of Jutland. She’s the daughter of a preschool teacher and a businessman. And she remembers how she was attracted by encyclopedias and profound knowledge even as a very small child.

“I was a girl with a thirst for knowledge. Perhaps I was even a bit of a nerd. I could sit for hour with my children’s encyclopedia, reading about everything from ballerinas and conch shells to planets and algae. I gulped down knowledge raw and learned to read complex texts at a young age. And I’ve carried that with me ever since: curiosity about everything around me, and the desire to learn about things I don’t know anything about,” she says.

But the rest of the world wasn’t quite prepared for such a curious mind in such a young girl. At one point, her parents got a call from her school. At that point, Dahl was reading adult books, and her teachers were concerned about whether she could understand what she was reading.

“I think my mum’s reaction was that if I didn’t understand it, then there probably wasn’t anything to worry about. My parents gave me space, and there weren’t any ambitions I was supposed to live up to, and there weren’t any limitations either. There was an enormous amount of freedom in that, and in any case I kept on gobbling up knowledge,” she remembers.

If you had asked Dahl’s family parents and friends back then, they would probably have guessed that a future as historian lay in the cards. Her favourite subjects all the way through primary and secondary school were history, Danish and social studies, and when she enrolled in the Aarhus School of Business (now Aarhus BSS, ed.), it was with a half-formed intention to take a PhD and pursue an academic career. At least initially.

Boss by accident
After graduation, Dahl followed a new trend in business and industry, and took a job in the emerging industry of management and strategy development consulting. The move was motivated more by curiosity than anything else. But it soon became clear that the 25-year-old MBA had a talent for executive leadership, and at the consultancy, her career began to take off.

Her thirst for knowledge has not diminished in subsequent years. On the contrary. If anything, it has grown and intensified. A useful trait for someone who sits on a wide variety of boards in almost as many industries and sectors.

“My student days at AU gave me the tools to use knowledge constructively, and that skill has followed me in my career. In reality, virtually everything is exciting once you really understand it. In this way, knowledge creates value for me, and it’s central to what makes me a good leader and collaborator – yes, and dinner companion for that matter. I understand the value of really digging down into a topic, because it enables me to move and act in a context in which you can change something together,” she explains.

Pippi as role model
Dahl’s own career testifies to an ability to move on. She’s moved from consultancy to telecoms to insurance to software. Always with a focus on transformation and change management.

And she has certainly succeed in changing things over the course of her career. Most recently at Microsoft, where she has presided over fundamental changes in the very product the company offers customers. As Dahl like to put it, Microsoft isn’t selling drills anymore: they’re selling the hole in the wall, which is what the customer actually needs.  As a result, Microsoft Denmark has simultaneously gained a new image, shifted gears on customer satisfaction and more than doubled its growth over the past few years:

“I’ve always been good at moving on if there’s been a reason to do so. And that’s my advice to others.  You have to be present in this life and this job: and you have to be present right now! You should be happy to go back to work after your holiday. I don’t believe that you can get good at anything if you don’t have the desire – and I myself am passionate about the different things I do. This is something I take with me, because I believe having a CEO who takes their passion and feelings with them to work can transform a workplace.”

 There’s another paradigm that has accompanied her throughout her career: the world’s strongest Swedish girl with red hair who’s strong enough to lift a horse. Dahl calls this the ‘Pippi doctrine’:

“I’ve always carried that image around with me mentally, actually. Where Pippi’s standing there with a horse over her head, smiling so sweetly. It resonates with me when Pippi says you have to be very kind if you’re strong. This is something else a modern, successful leader has to be. There are some people who’ve chosen me to be their leader, and to let me ‘decide’ over their working lives. If they’re not satisfied, they’ll move on, and then you’re not anything at all. You don’t have power today: instead, you have followship around a project. This means you have to give people the opportunity to see you and choose you. In the old days, you might have been able to be a real jerk if you wanted to. Those days are past, fortunately.”

Personality and leadership
Dahl’s leadership philosophy is in line with a new trend in leadership theory which emphasises the importance of revealing the whole person behind the job title, including her values and opinions. In recent years, she has begun taking on more social responsibility as a leader, and has become actively involved in promoting a number of agendas, including democracy in a digitalised world, talent development and inclusion on the labour market.

She participates in a variety of forums, boards and think tanks to the Disruption Council, where issues are discussed and decisions made that have deep and broad consequences for society. In addition to speaking on all kind of topics at Denmark's Political Festival, writing op eds and blog posts and making her voice heard in public debates on everything from integration of refugees to equality.

“There aren’t just three things that interest me, and maybe we’re back there with the little girl with her books, because I’m interested in a very wide range of topics. This is part of what makes me want to give of myself, and I feel that I get a lot in return from making a contribution.”

Gender equality is one cause Dahl is particularly vocal about. Her Twitter handle is @LivogStormsmor (‘Liv and Storm’s mom’), and she has been referring to herself as a feminist for years.

“Twenty years ago, I would get a little tired when my mum’s generation talked about equality. My attitude was that those problems had already been solved. But I have to say that the older I get, the more clearly I see that we have to insist on the fact that we don’t have equality in Denmark. For anyone. Including the men.”

Role model by choice
For the young Marianne Dahl, her time at the telcom company TDC was decisive. Particularly thanks to one of her own equality role models, Henning Dyremose. During his stint as a member of Parliament for the Danish Conservative Party, he had helped pass equal pay legislation in 1978, and as CEO of TDC, he introduced measures such as 13 weeks of paternity leave in 1999.

“He was actively working with diversity before anyone else could spell it,” Dahl remembers.

Dahl’s involvement in public debate is the result of careful consideration.

“I’ve made a choice to use myself as a role model, even though it’s not about me. I would like to give advice to the many young people who approach me. I would like to show the next generation that you can be all kinds of things at the same time. You don’t have to choose. When I was between the ages of 25 and 35, I was incredibly worried about whether I was making the right choices. I tried to calculate what I could do to have both a family and a career. But look! Then I had twins, and now they’re ten and the best kids in the world, and my career certainly hasn’t slowed down in that period. You can have the whole palette. If you want it enough.”