Profile: Xbox supremo Robbie Bach

“Your competitive advantage is precisely the word ‘community.’ So how do you drive that in everything you do? How does that shift your strategy? How do you use that to attract or retain customers?”
—Robbie Bach

When Robbie Bach left Microsoft in 2010 after successfully launching the Xbox, it was to pick up where he left off as a teen. Today, he’s taking the strategies he learned in the gaming world and using them to drive transformational change on a larger stage.

By Roshan McArthur

Robbie Bach wanted to be a senator when he grew up. This dream, sparked by his fascination with civics, stayed with him through high school and into college. Over time, though, his interests diversified, and he entered the business world, ultimately spending 22 years at Microsoft. He led the creation of the Xbox business as CXO, or chief Xbox officer, and when he left the company in 2010, he was serving as president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division.

In that role, he was responsible for launching one of the world’s best-known gaming brands. So why walk away? There had been great successes, but there had also been struggles (getting Xbox off the ground, for one) and failed ideas (like the Zune music player). In a blog entry from May 2016, Bach describes his days at Microsoft as varying between “crazy busy” and “out of control, frantic mayhem.” That pace took its toll, but, he says, he also had an itch to scratch. When he was 49 years old, the company asked him to renew his contract for another five years. That time frame would have taken him into his mid-50s, leaving him with limited time to explore other options—or reignite old passions—in a meaningful way.

“I really wanted to shift gears,” he explains. “I really wanted to go back and scratch the civics itch that I’ve had since high school. Our kids were also reaching the age when they were starting to go off on their own, and my wife, Pauline, was starting to get re-engaged in a career. Figuring out how we would both be able to do all that, it wasn’t super practical. As you start to deal with empty nesthood, the nature of your relationship changes, so I wanted to put our relationship in an important position.”
So, Bach embarked on what he describes as Act II of his career. As a self-described “civic engineer,” he helps businesses, community organizations and nonprofits drive transformational change. He writes, speaks, consults and serves on six boards, including those of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the United States Olympic Committee.

The importance of strategy
Bach doesn’t overlook the irony of moving from video games to civic engagement, but he sees common threads between the two worlds. One is the absolute importance of strategy. “I know that sounds obvious,” he says, “but the truth is that most civic organizations don’t do good strategy. It’s also true that a number of companies … don’t do great strategy work either.

“Strategy is what saved the Xbox business in large part, and I think it can help civic and nonprofit organizations,” he adds. “If you’re trying to solve any modestly complicated problem, the first place to start is to have a simple strategy for dealing with it. If you can articulate a simple strategy that I can understand, you’ve got a shot. If you can’t, then I think the road ahead is filled with rocks and potholes—and probably cliffs.”

In his 2015 book, Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal, Bach credits the team’s 3P Framework of Purpose, Principles and Priorities with having revitalized Microsoft’s Xbox strategy. And, as he says, it’s simple:

Purpose is the company’s foundation, or core strategic direction. It is a constant, but it has to be aspirational.

Principles are the higher-level concepts, or key beliefs, that help create the organization’s culture, and they change only if the purpose changes.
Priorities are up to five key initiatives (and no more) that will drive the organization for one- to three-year periods.

As Bach explains, picking those priorities means having a leadership team that really understands what the organization is all about. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We’ll pick five priorities,’ but if you pick the wrong five, the fact that you have five won’t help you at all,” he says. “You need discipline, a willingness to let go of things. It’s not committing to things that’s the problem. The hard part for people is de-committing to things.”

In the video game world, change and innovation are everything, and that’s something Bach believes many businesses and civic organizations could learn from. “The video game business is constantly reinventing itself by definition,” he explains, “and one of the challenges in the civic world is convincing organizations that they absolutely must accept change.”

This is something that he recommends for community banks in particular. “Community banks can’t be followers,” he says. “They have to be willing to do what it takes, explore new areas and think about the banking experience in a different way.”

Gamer guru—Robbie Bach, then senior vice president, Home Entertainment Division, and chief Xbox officer for Microsoft, unveils the Xbox 360 console at a news conference in Los Angeles on May 16, 2005.
Photo Credit: Marsaili mcGrath/Getty Images

The power of community
Bach also stresses that being powerfully and positively engaged in the community is very good for business, and not just for public relations purposes. “It may in fact be good for PR, but that’s not the reason to do it,” he says. “Do it because it’s fundamentally good for your business. It makes your employees feel excited about their work. It makes the community feel good and want to do things to support you. Somewhere down the road, you’re creating equity that will be valuable to you.”

So, he says, community banks need to turn the word “community” into a powerful tool. “Your competitive advantage is precisely the word ‘community’,” he says. “So how do you drive that in everything you do? How does that shift your strategy? How do you use that to attract or retain customers? My guess is that sometimes people hear the word ‘community,’ and they think ‘small,’ ‘backwoods.’ I don’t think of it that way at all. I think of it as personal and capable of doing things the big banks can’t. How do you turn that nimbleness into a competitive advantage? How do you make the personal part, the nimbleness part, the civic and community engagement part, mean a lot to the people you’re trying to attract as customers?”

Robbie Bach on the leader who most inspires him

The 33rd president of the United States (1945–1953), Harry S. Truman stepped into the role after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and oversaw a period of post-war economic transition. Bach admires his moral compass in a period of radical change.

Harry S. Truman

“He’s a super interesting guy. He was a farmer. He never obtained a college degree. He was a common-sense guy who believed in doing the right thing. Even when the right thing was painful or unpopular,” Bach says.

“You look at the decisions he had to make when he became president in 1945. He was unelected, so he had no mandate. The first decision he had to make was whether we should drop the atomic bomb on Japan.

“Then the war ends, and he has to decide what to do about rebuilding Europe, and he approves the Marshall Plan. And then the Soviet Union decides to blockade Berlin, and he has to decide on the Berlin Airlift. Then he has to decide what to do about South Korea and the Korean War. He helped to establish the United Nations.

“When you go through the list of things he had to figure out, he made some decisions that were right and some that were wrong,” Bach says. “He just tried to do what he thought was right.”

—Roshan McArthur

Community banks absolutely have to play to their strength, which is the community itself, Bach says. As always, it comes back to being actively engaged in the community. “It is our civic duty to drive change,” he writes in Xbox Revisited. Does that mean he may be running for office in the near future?

“No!” he laughs. “I’m a systems-change person. Once you become a politician, you get very defined by the issues themselves, and it becomes very hard to do the systemic work.”