When Satya Nadella was announced to Microsoft employees as the company’s third CEO in February 2014, the new boss had his fair share of challenges to tackle.
Being at the helm of an organisation on the defence due to deflated Windows PC and phone markets, and having to lead burnt out and disillusioned employees, left many to wonder how Nadella would rise to the challenge.
Following in the footsteps of the bullish Steve Ballmer, and Microsoft’s founding CEO, the cocksure and brilliant Bill Gates, there aren’t many shoes that are bigger to fill than those of these two industry giants. The question was: Whose lead would Nadella follow?
As it turned out, he would set out his own stall and be at pains to show that his leadership style is unlike either of his predecessors. Moving forward with Microsoft, Nadella would look to improve the company’s culture as the solution to the challenges it faces.
In his debut book, Hit Refresh, he insists that this is the number one job for any CEO, which is somewhat surprising coming from the CEO of a major company within a cut-throat industry. One wonders if such leaders should be focused on swallowing up the competition and ensuring financial buoyancy in an increasingly-competitive field.
Nevertheless, Nadella – who has been at Microsoft for over 20 years – is adamant that Microsoft needs to develop a “growth mindset” and become a “learn-it-all” organisation rather than a “know-it-all”. He paints a picture of a diverse and inclusive culture, and one that’s powered by empowerment and empathy.
It’s here that I have the main sticking point of the book. Even leaving aside the grandiose subtitle of the book (The Quest To Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul And Imagine A Better Future For Everyone), I was at times left wondering whether I was making my way through an extended PowerPoint presentation.
Throughout the book, we find chunks of recycled management speak. It seems to offer very little by way of unique insight into how Nadella plans to make the kind of changes you invariably hear from any CEO within any other organisation.
The book can also be confusing in its indecision – is it a memoir, or a text book meant for business school students? As a famously private individual, Nadella’s writing tends to veer toward the latter (although he does reveal poignant glimpses of his personal story). This is good news for business students, particularly as he offers a generous heap of titbits relating to the inner workings of Microsoft, as well as his views of the direction in which the industry is headed.
In the latter part of the book, Microsoft’s new chief offers perceptive essays on “The Future of Humans and Machines” and “Restoring Economic Growth for Everyone”, in which Nadella calls for a revamp of laws to deal with privacy concerns that come with technological advances. He further examines the role of Artificial Intelligence and how it could be scaled to serve in all our interests. Nadella also talks about the need for humans to keep pace with developments in technology, suggesting that we can remain relevant by cultivating our capacity for empathy and creativity, and by making sure we take sound judgement and accountability seriously as times progress.
Despite the book coming across as more of a corporate effort rather than an authentic message (co-writers are Greg Shaw, and Jill Trace Nicols – CEO of a corporate communications firm), there is the sense that Nadella is genuine in what he’s trying to achieve within his new role.
While his predecessors could rely on each other as sounding boards, Microsoft’s current chief prefers to reach out to the company’s senior leadership team, who he describes as a “Legion of Superheroes, with each leader coming to the table with a unique superpower to contribute for the common good”.
In the midst of turbulent times, the tech industry is sure to be heading toward some fascinating changes as it takes on the social and technological challenges of the day. Satya Nadella’s first book is one that offers some key insights into how Microsoft intends to deal with these challenges.
Hit Refresh is a fascinating take for anyone keen on learning how one of the most iconic companies plans to adapt and thrive in the face of a future with as many uncertainties as there are opportunities for growth.
Hit Refresh: The Quest To Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul And Imagine A Better Future For Everyone
Author: Satya Nadella
Publisher: HarperCollins, nonfiction