Satya Nadella on Leadership

There are anyways very few books authored by CEOs, especially the current ones. Most books are by consultants, writers, academics, journalists et al., offering a second-hand account of proceedings, at best. What sets the book — Hit Refresh — by Microsoft’s third CEO, apart is the bland of insight and foresight, humility and courage, and a deep sense of connect with its audience.

Going through the pages, it is apparent that Satya is very well read, well travelled, and a reasonable person. The book narrates his efforts in transforming the giant amid tectonic shifts, in society, economics, and technology. Here’s my take on the most important takeaways from the text of how leaders shape culture and prepare the organization for the future. Satya calls the text as ‘the meditations of a sitting CEO in the midst of a massive transformation’.

Ever since Satya was named as the CEO of Microsoft in February 2014, he has been on the mission of searching the soul of the company and galvanizing its resources and talent to once again make a difference. As an employee for over two decades at the tech behemoth, he recollects — “Microsoft has always been at its best when it connects personal passion to a broader purpose”. His primary role was to search that purpose, for which, in the very first few days of assuming has office, he called for a Senior Leadership Team (SLT) meet, albeit in a different setting. A very emotional, soul searching meeting ended with a common understanding of the higher calling — to employ Microsoft in pursuit of their personal passion to empower others. I think, that it’s profound.

Satya also narrates how his upbringing, schooling, love for cricket, and journey to the USA and Microsoft led him to develop a deep sense of empathy and resilience to look at things in an holistic manner. From the sports of cricket, the former player and ardent fan draws leadership lessons of 1) competing vigorously and with passion in the face of uncertainty and intimidation; 2) putting your team first; and 3) the central importance of leadership. He says that leadership is about bringing out the best in everyone, and is galvanized by the alchemy of purpose, innovation and empathy.

Satya reflects on his formative years of scaling Microsoft’s cloud business and how he rallied his troops around the importance of scale, experimentation-led design, applied machine learning, and auction-based pricing — elements new to how Microsoft used to operate in past. His challenge was to shift focus from the big server and tools business that paid everyone’s salary to the tiny cloud business with almost no revenue. The success on setting up the cloud business (MS Azure) later attributed to his CEOship.

The catch-phrase Satya coined to rally his troops was — “mobile-first and cloud-first”, and the was he defined mobile was ‘mobility of human experiences’. To paraphrase — Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first, cloud-first world.

The CEO identified Microsoft’s ambitions as 1) reinvent productivity and business processes through collaboration, mobility, intelligent and trust; 2) build an intelligent cloud platform; and 3) move people from needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows by creating a more personal computing. (p 88–89).

At every given opportunity, Satya would invite partners, customers, startup founders and other external change makers to speak to his leaders and hopefully being in some vitality. The launch of Windows 10 in Kenya was a case in point of being closer to the customer.

As for the cultural transformation at Microsoft, Satya’s three-point agenda was: 1) customer obsession, 2) actively seek diversity and inclusion; and 3) one company- Microsoft. The annual hackathon during the company’s OneWeek celebration helped fuel some of these themes, leading to several breakthroughs. On technology, he was betting on a blend of mixed reality, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.

In terms of other leaders, Satya identifies three cardinal rules of leading at Microsoft — 1) bring clarity to those you work with; 2) leaders generate energy, not only on their own teams by across the company; and 3) they find a way to deliver success, to make things happen.

There’s another very interesting chapter in the book is on alliances and partnerships , dubbed as ‘friends or frenemies’, where Satya outlines the approach MS is adopting to manage partnership with the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung, Adobe, Yahoo, Linux community, and others. He’s trying to bring a shift from competing on legal grounds to that on the power of MS products. Satya identifies the partnership strategy on engaging the partner’s customer by leveraging data, encouraging employees to collaborate, optimizing operating , and adopting a transformative business model.

Satya says his ambition is to be — the biggest platform provider underneath all of this entrepreneurial energy, with an unrelenting focus on creating economic opportunity for all. (p.134–135)

The closing chapters are on use-cases of mixed reality, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, and on privacy, economic growth, social equality, and the co-existence of machines and humans.

Through the book, Nadella draws insights and inspirations from the diverse fields of linguistics, computer science, sociology, psychology, science fiction et al., to offer a gripping narrative. Also, his passion for helping people with disabilities to lead a better life through technology has been central to the book. He also shared his own vulnerabilities, especially while narrating the karma episode on women in tech.

Leaving you with some incisive and timeless quotes from the book.

My passion is to put empathy at the centre of everything I pursue — from the products we launch, to the new markets we enter, to the employees, customers, and partners we work with. (p.9–10)

Leadership means making choices and they rallying the team around those choices. (p.56)

To me, meeting with customers and learning from both their articulated and unarticulated needs is the key to any product innovation agenda. (p.60)

A leader must see the external opportunities and the internal capabilities and culture — and respond to them before they become obvious parts of the convention wisdom. It’s an art, not a science. And a leader will not always get it right. (p.62)

Listening was the most important thing I accomplished each day because it would build the foundation of my leadership for years to come. (p.75)

I like to think that the C in CEO stands for culture. The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture. (p.100)

The key to the culture change was individual empowerment. (p.109)

To be a leader in this company, your job is to find the rose petals in a field of shit. (p.119)

Trust is built by being consistent over time. Trust has many other components as well — respect, listening, transparency, staying focused, and being willing to hit reset when necessary. We have got to be principled about it. (p.135)

A company has to have a complete vision for what it can uniquely do, and then back it up with conviction and the capability to make it happen. (p.141)

At Microsoft, we’re betting that quantum computing will make artificial intelligence more intelligent and mixed reality an even more immersive experience. (p.167)

Machines will enrich and augment our creativity, but the human drive to create will remain central. (p.207)

A very insightful read for anyone interested in technology, leadership lessons, and strategy.