Three Leadership Lessons from Satya Nadella

As another year picks up steam, I’m once again reminded that “time flies like an arrow”.  For instance, though it feels like it was yesterday, in February 2015 it’ll be a year since Satya Nadella became Microsoft’s new CEO.  Tasked with implementing sweeping changes at the technology behemoth, some of his moves have been expected and applauded, while others have been surprising and controversial.  Most of us don’t run a large company for a living, but I think there are three very basic steps that can be inferred from Nadella’s style that are worth keeping fresh in our own jobs.

Be Analytic.  Nadella’s ideas didn’t just spark out of nowhere the moment he became CEO.  Before being promoted, he had a very successful run as the head of Cloud and Enterprise, making Microsoft the second largest player in the cloud space essentially by applying the same “mobile-first, cloud-first” strategy he’s now bringing to all of Microsoft.  Azure, the company’s cloud business, made inroads into its market by offering products and services from all over the technology landscape, instead of being limited to a Windows-centric technology stack.  Clearly, the large transformation taking place at Microsoft is not the result of a series of reactions to emergencies, but of long and well-honed reflections on the state of the market, the industry and the company.

Be Strategic/Holistic.  There’s a cartoon that mocks the internal organizational structure of several large tech companies.  Microsoft is depicted as a company with antagonizing units, a sentiment mirrored by several analysts and insiders.  Much of what Nadella is doing aims at breaking down walls and fostering collaboration and synergies across teams.  Take, for example, the recent decision to provide Office for free on iOS and Android devices.  While this may mean a short-term revenue loss for Office, in the long run it’s the only way to protect the franchise: with new iPads bundling Apple’s iWork for free and putting up desktop PC class performance, the only way to preserve the hefty corporate revenue of Office is to ensure it remains the de facto productivity suite on mobile.  Old Microsoft probably had very separate goals and structures for these two worlds, and may have been able to diagnose the issue, but not necessarily address it.  Time and again, local optimization trumps truly global efficiency.  Being analytic cannot reach its full potential unless it’s done systematically, across all of the business processes or the strategic pillars.

Be Bold.  In my playbook, indecisiveness remains the capital sin a leader can commit.  All of the world’s depth and breadth of analysis and strategic planning amount to nothing if it’s not followed by action.  Nadella may have taken his time to think through his ideas, buy enough internal consensus, and plan them to the point they seem to effortlessly condense from the vision.  But once ideas reach that stage, action has to come swiftly.  A few years from now, Microsoft may find itself in a very bad position, and with the perfection hindsight affords, we may be able to pinpoint the exact reasons to one or two key mistakes made by Nadella.  Right now, if he’s thought about it this way, he’s not letting it show.  Once a course of action has been set, it must be followed without pause or deviation — especially for an organization in such a critical transition period as Microsoft.  Football comes to mind.  Coaches devote several hours to prepare each weekly game, which obviously includes variants of the strategy, but the preparation and communication is so demanding, and the game is so fast and complex, once you reach the gridiron there’s not much room to re-plan.  Tough decisions have a nasty habit to look more difficult when seen from up close, but most times the situation hasn’t really changed: that which looks ugly the day before dealing with it looked just the same when we considered it a few weeks ago, so why cower to it just now?

Like I said earlier, almost none of us can boast of being the CEO of a tech company, let alone a US$ 20+ billion revenue a year, 120,000-employee giant like Microsoft.  But I think all of us who lead would do well to heed these three steps.  Ask yourself, how do these or similar situations show up and apply to my local context?  Then find effective ways to bake these approaches into your routines this year and those to follow.

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