What this former Microsoft exec-turned-nonprofit leader learned from Satya Nadella

Jim McCorkle, chief operating officer of SightLife. (SightLife Photo)

Jim McCorkle worked for three decades in corporate roles, feeding his need to do good in the world by engaging in volunteer efforts during his off hours. Most recently he’s been working with people experiencing homelessness, co-founding a safe parking program in Redmond, east of Seattle, that provides resources for people living in their vehicles.

But it still wasn’t enough.

“For a long time I felt drawn to an organization that was mission driven and service oriented. It meant a lot to me,” McCorkle said. He realized, “I don’t want my business life and personal life to be so different. I want those two things to reconcile.”

McCorkle was at Microsoft working as a senior director of business program management when a family member was hit with a serious health challenge that “shook us to our core.”

Two weeks later, he coincidentally reconnected with a former Microsoft colleague, Claire Bonilla, who had taken over as CEO of SightLife. The Seattle-based nonprofit founded in 1969 promotes itself as “the world’s leading eye bank” and is trying to globally eliminate corneal blindness. Bonilla had a job opening.

“I re-assessed my priorities and what mattered to me,” McCorkle said. The timing and opportunity were right. The next day he decided to leave Microsoft after 12 years and go to SightLife, initially as chief of staff. Last year he became chief operating officer.

McCorkle didn’t know much about the field, but had jumped sectors multiple times in his career. He had a tested strategy for getting up to speed.

“My learning comes mostly from the people I interact with. I’m willing to be open and listen and be vulnerable… and people open up to me,” McCorkle said.

One of the approaches that he brought with him from Microsoft was more structured employee management, helping SightLife staff set goals and expectations, and rewarding them for reaching their targets.

McCorkle takes leadership inspiration from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

“From a business perspective, he has driven incredible results at Microsoft,” he said. “More importantly, he encourages everyone to lead with passion, purpose and empathy, which are critical to creating a strong foundation for sustained success.”

He added: “While Satya is in a different echelon as CEO of one of the most powerful companies in the world, it’s clear that he cares about the very real challenges facing our communities and interlocked world.”

McCorkle leads U.S. operations for SightLife. The nonprofit has a network of facilities nationwide that’s ready to collect and process corneal tissues when an eye donor dies. Their goal is to determine within 12 hours of death if the cornea is suitable for transplant, which includes making sure the donor doesn’t carry any infectious disease and that the tissue is of good quality, and to process it for a surgeon to use. The work runs 24/7 and requires coordination between hospitals, coroners and others while the clock is ticking.

Jim McCorkle and his wife Dawn on vacation at Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast. (Photo courtesy of Jim McCorkle)

Last year, SightLife provided 12,579 corneas for transplant.

“Now at SightLife, I don’t have to split my time. I’ve the unique opportunity to drive business outcomes and contribute to an incredible mission,” McCorkle said. “Every single day, my team helps transform lives through the gift of sight.”

We caught up with McCorkle for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: I’ve lived in Redmond for 14 years and work at SightLife’s global headquarters in downtown Seattle.

Computer types: PC, all the way. Over a decade at Microsoft will do that to you. My favorite device is the Surface Pro.

Mobile devices: Samsung S10

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: My favorite software tool is OneNote. I’m a big fan. It organizes my entire life. I’ve even brought my family on board and we use it to manage our life together. Besides OneNote, the apps I use daily are:

  • Starbucks: It has a very intuitive interface for customers!
  • Spotify: You’ll often find me listening to ’80s hits.
  • Mint: It provides a great portfolio view of my investments and assets.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I like to be immersed, not isolated. So, while I have an office for focus time and meetings, two of the four walls are glass so I’m not blocked off from the greater operations team. I also sit right next to our coffee station. I love coffee and drink a lot of it, but the best thing about frequenting the coffee station is how much quality time it gives me with staff. Connecting with them really lights up my day.

In general, my office is organized, but you will always find a stack (or two!) of miscellaneous documents on my desk for reference or because I haven’t had a chance to file them. On the walls and on my desk are photos of my wife and two grown sons. These photos keep me grounded and remind me why I come here every day — to support my family. They additionally inspire me and anchor my compassion for the many donor families that interact with SightLife, often at the most difficult time in their lives, after they’ve lost a loved one.

Our organization transforms lives by preventing corneal blindness and restoring sight. But I’ve also witnessed firsthand how meaningful it can be for donor families to honor their loved one’s wishes to participate in tissue donation. We’ve received remarkable feedback that such a thing often helps with the healing process, including during the early periods of intense and unimaginable grief.

Jim McCorkle wants to be accessible to colleagues in his office at SightLife. (SightLife Photo)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? My best advice builds upon advice I received years ago when I was once at the end of my rope, riddled with stress. My coworker at the time encouraged me to set boundaries and adhere to them, because “if you’re waiting for someone else to do it for you, it won’t happen. They’ll take as much as you’re willing to give.” I took this advice to heart and set new boundaries. And wow, my work-life balance dramatically improved. To my surprise, my manager and team respected my decision. Moreover, my career continued to grow.

So, it’s important to be clear about your priorities and be willing to set boundaries in support of those priorities. Where you invest your time and resources reflects what matters to you.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I like Facebook because it helps me keep up with my mom and my kids, all of whom live out of state.

But LinkedIn takes the cake. It is an incredible tool for networking and recruiting. In fact, I ended up at SightLife because of a LinkedIn message. When Claire Bonilla was named CEO of SightLife, I reached out to congratulate her. Turns out, she needed a chief of staff. Putting my hat in the ring, and then leaving Microsoft for SightLife, came at a critical juncture in my life. While I had always hoped to work at nonprofit organization, I kept putting it off (literally for 10 years).

But when Claire and I reconnected, things were different. My family was navigating a health crisis that put everything in perspective. My decision to remove the golden handcuffs was quicker and easier than I ever expected. I was in an emotionally raw place and living a more purposeful life with my family was (and remains) my priority. Shortly thereafter, I journeyed to SightLife and haven’t looked back.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 1,300 unanswered emails. I aspire to leave each workday with no more than 10 unread emails, but they build up quickly. Luckily, I have a great team and I don’t feel that I need to chime in on everything. Remember, it’s about setting boundaries!

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? This week is light with 27 meetings, but I also was in two full-day trainings.

How do you run meetings? I like to keep meetings simple and short. I ensure everyone is clear on what will be covered so we can hit the ground running. I also try to limit the number of people in the meeting to preserve time on everyone’s schedule. My favorite is my weekly leadership stand-up. We all stand and quickly run through what’s in store that week or address any brewing issues, together.

Jim McCorkle presenting at a cornea and eye banking conference in India in 2019. (SightLife Photo)

Everyday work uniform? After being at Microsoft for so long, I’m very comfortable working in jeans. Plus, a relaxed dress code helps with approachability and building connections internally.

How do you make time for family? I try to protect my weekend time. I’d rather work long days or plug in on the evenings to get the job done. As my two sons live out of state, my wife and I try to take long weekends to travel and spend time with them as often as possible.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Day-to-day, working out is a priority. My wife and I also schedule vacations with close friends at least twice a year where all we do is RELAX: lounge by the pool, read, eat and sleep. We also play epic games, such as Monopoly Deal, which my SightLife colleagues introduced me to last year at a global leadership retreat in Nepal. On vacation, we rinse and repeat for five, six or seven days. We’re five years into this tradition and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

What are you listening to? My son and his fiancé are singers/songwriters, living the musician’s dream in Nashville. My future daughter-in-law, Kara Frazier, recently released new songs and I am hooked! Her music is original, and her voice is beautiful. However, when I’m with my podcast-obsessed son, we often listen to comedian Joe Rogan.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I read the breaking news headlines from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, but since my youngest son became a writer for Steeler’s Depot (Go Steelers!), I’ve been tuning in daily. It’s fun!

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? Most recently, “The Big Book,” which is the Alcoholics Anonymous bible and something I wanted to read in solidarity with a family member because it has such significance and influence in his life. I attribute AA to his success, and I want to be there for him, helping in whatever way he needs so he can keep doing his amazing work. I am very proud of him.

Night owl or early riser? I’m naturally an early riser, getting up at 5 a.m. during the week. On the weekend, I’m also a night owl, but I can never sleep in past 6 a.m. I typically get about five hours of sleep each night. While it doesn’t seem like a lot, I almost always feel well rested.

Where do you get your best ideas? When I’m disconnected and not distracted, whether that’s driving in the car or taking a shower. Being with my own thoughts allows me to process ideas, input or suggestions I’ve gathered from listening to others.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. From a business perspective, he has driven incredible results at Microsoft. More importantly, he encourages everyone to lead with passion, purpose and empathy, which are critical to creating a strong foundation for sustained success. I also admire his deep appreciation of his wife and children. He gives himself permission to be vulnerable when describing the impact that they have had on his life, his journey to empathy, and Microsoft’s work to address the unmet needs of customers, especially in the space of accessibility and inclusion.

While Satya is in a different echelon as CEO of one of the most powerful companies in the world, it’s clear that he cares about the very real challenges facing our communities and interlocked world. His continued connection to his roots in India also resonates with me as a first-generation college graduate who didn’t come from a family with great means. I did have strong values and a deep work ethic, which informed my philosophy that organizations and their leaders should lead with their values first because when they do, business success tends to follow.

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