Leader as Sense-Maker and Cultural Curator
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is an exemplar of a leader as sense-maker. He has revitalized how Microsoft’s strategy, mission, and culture connect people, products, and services—inside and outside his company.
Nadella has a success story to tell, and his Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone (2017, with two co-authors) highlights how he is a different kind of leader transforming Microsoft into a different kind of company.
Hit Refresh‘s broad objective is to lay out a vision for the future of the company. The book is aimed at people who work at or with Microsoft. Many employees were given a special imprint of book with Nadella’s faux-handwritten annotations in the margins and highlighted snippets.
The book’s narrative arc shifts from a personal memoir to a management how-to, and then to technological futurism. The latter—and perhaps the least interesting—portion features Nadella’s forethoughts on artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and quantum computing, as well as their socio-economic implications.
Satya Nadella Shook Things Up by De-Ballmering Microsoft
Nadella took Microsoft’s reins in February 2014 after long-time CEO Steve Ballmer resigned in August 2013. Under Nadella’s watch, Microsoft quickly became more open and more nimble as an organization. Its cloud computing, Office 365, and gaming platform franchises are all running remarkably well.
Microsoft pivoted its business model around subscription products that produce recurrent revenue. It acquired Mojang (creator of the popular Minecraft videogame title,) LinkedIn, and GitHub. It ditched Nokia and embraced open source software—it’s even including a Linux kernel in a future Windows release.
Today one of my top priorities is to make sure that our billion customers, no matter which phone or platform they choose to use, have their needs met so that we continue to grow. To do that, sometimes we have to bury the hatchet with old rivals, pursue surprising new partnerships, and revive longstanding relationships. Over the years we’ve developed the maturity to become more obsessed with customer needs, thereby learning to coexist and compete.
A Renewed Sense of Purpose: The Leader’s Tone Steers the Organizational Culture
Hit Refresh‘s foremost take-away is how the tone at the top sets an organization’s guiding values. Properly contemplated, propagated, and nurtured, Nadella’s approach became the foundation upon which the culture of Microsoft has been remade.
With “the C in CEO is for curator of culture,” Nadella’s dominant mission has been to recreate Microsoft’s underlying beliefs, values, and expectations in the eyes of its employees, business partners, customers, investors, and the society. This culture is to be consistent within Microsoft and characterize all the discernable patterns of behavior across the organization.
When I was named Microsoft’s third CEO in February 2014, I told employees that renewing our company’s culture would be my highest priority. I told them I was committed to ruthlessly removing barriers to innovation so we could get back to what we all joined the company to do—to make a difference in the world.
Nadella’s playbook has consisted of challenging complacency, instituting a “growth mindset,” being open-minded enough to welcome new technology and collaborate with Microsoft’s traditional competitors (“frenemies,”) and shifting from a “know it all” to a “learn it all” mindset.
I had essentially asked employees to identify their innermost passions and to connect them in some way to our new mission and culture. In so doing, we would transform our company and change the world.
“Driven by a Sense of Empathy and a Desire to Empower Others”
Core to Nadella’s framework is his conviction that individuals are wired to have empathy. “The alchemy of purpose, innovation, and empathy” is indispensible “not only for creating harmony within organizations but also for creating products that resonate.”
Nadella describes how caring for a special-needs child and his wife Anu’s sacrifices for the family made him become conscious of the significance of empathy. Specifically, Anu helped him recast these setbacks as opportunities to expand his worldview.
Being a husband and a father has taken me on an emotional journey. It has helped me develop a deeper understanding of people of all abilities and of what love and human ingenuity can accomplish. … It’s just that life’s experience has helped me build a growing sense of empathy for an ever-widening circle of people. … My passion is to put empathy at the center of everything I pursue—from the products we launch, to the new markets we enter, to the employees, customers, and partners we work with.
The most interesting section of Hit Refresh is Nadella’s personal journey growing up in India, migrating to America, and working his way up the career ladder at Microsoft. The only child of a Sanskrit scholar and a civil servant, Nadella was hooked on cricket (it taught him how to compete vigorously, the virtue of working in teams, and the importance of leadership direction.)
Recommendation: Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh is a satisfactory first take on his remarkable revamp of the culture of a company that had become set in its ways. Microsoft’s transformation has been nothing short of dramatic—there’s a lot more to be done and written about.