Changemakers: Satya Nadella

Visionary Microsoft leader who believes business has a responsibility to address problems of globalisation


Ask Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, what the most pressing problems are that he is working to solve right now and he will give you two answers.

“First, I believe that, at its most powerful, technology can be a force for good in the world,” he says.

“In the future, technologies like AI, mixed reality and quantum computing will advance in powerful, transformative ways, impacting every person, every business and every society. They hold enormous potential to help us solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as tackling climate change, eradicating hunger and curing disease.”

Nadella is optimistic that exploring beyond our present reality will yield concrete solutions: “With quantum computing, we are innovating beyond today’s world and today’s computers to parallel universes. There are some problems and questions so difficult, so vast, that even if all the computers in the world worked on the problem in tandem, they’d still take longer than the lifetime of the universe to solve.”

Microsoft is already applying quantum-inspired algorithms to address real customer problems, such as detecting cancer faster and more accurately. Its Seeing AI app narrates the world for the visually impaired and its mixed-reality-driven Firstline Workers app enables improved customer service. “We are empowering the two billion ‘Firstline Workers’ of the world who don’t sit at a desk but work with their hands to collaborate with colleagues and experts in real-time, hands-free,” Nadella says.

The many initiatives underway at Microsoft in partnership with a broad range of organisations attest to the transformative power of technology in different sectors.

‘Empathy is essential to dealing with problems everywhere, whether at Microsoft or at home; here in the US or globally’

Bühler, which builds machines that process nearly two-thirds of the world’s grain, has built its own solution to identify deadly toxins in grain – differentiating its equipment and keeping the world’s food supply safe at the same time. In food retail, Kroger is using digital technology to redefine the customer experience and provide its employees with greater insight. In transportation, Grab is using AI to improve passenger and driver safety. And in financial services, BlackRock is applying digital technology to reimagine retirement, aiming to help millions of Americans with their retirement planning needs.

Nadella is particularly passionate about using technology for accessibility: “I am energised by the tremendous opportunity we have to use advances in technology to make a difference in the lives of the one-billion-plus people in the world with disabilities,” he says. “It’s so inspiring to see, for example, how the Xbox Adaptive Controller is enabling all gamers of all abilities to play the games they love with their friends.”

As he says, “Technology innovation is one avenue to help solve some of society’s most pressing problems”, but it’s not enough by itself – which brings us to his second answer.

“Companies like Microsoft have a responsibility to directly address the challenges created by globalisation. I believe the decoupling we’re seeing between economic and productivity growth and jobs and wages is one of the biggest challenges of our time. We have to find a new global architecture which drives not only economic growth but, perhaps more importantly, equitable growth.

“I’m under no illusion that Microsoft or any one organisation is going to solve these macro challenges alone, but I do believe we have a role to play.”

Nadella believes local action can lead to “global maxima” in driving socio-economic equality. An example is Microsoft’s recent contribution of US$500 million (£380 million) to boost affordable housing solutions for people in the Seattle region, where the company is headquartered. The money is destined for loans and grants to enable the broader community – teachers, small business owners, medical practitioners and others, as well as Microsoft employees – to live closer to where they work.

It’s a reflection of the values-based leadership Nadella has modelled since he took over from Steve Ballmer as CEO in February 2014.

An electrical engineer and computer scientist by training, he “grew up” professionally inside Microsoft. He joined the firm in 1992, moving through a succession of leadership roles before becoming Executive Vice President of the Cloud and Enterprise group – the role he held before acceding to Chief Executive.

“Satya Nadella identified the massive
opportunity around the cloud and
technology and asked, ‘What’s been
keeping us from leveraging this?’ He
anchored a bigger purpose in the
organisation, changing the mission
from ‘a computer on every desktop’
to empowerment – including
harnessing technology to help
people with disabilities. His brilliance
was to combine a clear-eyed look at
what was wrong with modelling the
growth mindset. He so

embodies the message that people
are inspired – it’s immediately apparent
that he believes it to the core of his
being. Ideas like growth mindset
become fashionable. What company
doesn’t talk about being ‘a learning
organisation’? Often somebody will
say to HR, ‘Put it in’ , but Microsoft
didn’t do it that way. They didn’t put in
a diversity programme or a ‘no-silos’
programme, or even a change programme.
They set up hackathons where people get

to work on real problems that they’re
interested in – and that creates the
relationships. Nadella simply said, ‘Here’s
what it takes, here’s why we’re doing it,
here’s what we need to do.’ He succeeded
by constantly role-modelling the change
to his top team and throughout the
organisation.” Herminia Ibarra, Charles
Handy Professor of Organisational
Behaviour, LBS

His leadership style is strongly influenced by the routines and mindset of his parents in India and his immediate family in Seattle. The birth of his first child, Zain, who has cerebral palsy, had a clear impact on him as a leader: “What I learned is that empathy is essential to dealing with problems everywhere, whether at Microsoft or at home; here in the United States or globally. And that is also a mindset. It’s a culture.”

As CEO he has radically transformed Microsoft’s culture, insisting on a growth mindset in his staff and holding himself to the same standard: “Leaders have to accept the reality that they live in an over-constrained world and still will always need to find the best path forward. So avoid hubris. Be humble. The reality is that each day we need to confront all the things we don’t know and practise being a learn-it-all rather than a know-it-all.”

How does he define good leadership? “Any leader needs to have the ability to create clarity when none exists. There will always be ambiguity but, at the end of the day, it’s the leader who has to make the call.”

Also crucial in his view is “the ability to create energy and deliver success”. Under his stewardship, Microsoft has shifted from a company perceived by many as a Windows-centric, lumbering giant to a US$700 billion (£531 billion) market cap tech player. And his strategic bets on AI and cloud computing are paying off . After a decade of fl at growth, the company’s share price soared to an all-time high. By 1 October 2018 it had risen to US$115 ((£87) per share.

Nadella is very excited about the future. In particular, he is keen to see how core business can be fused with and enhanced by technological innovation to empower companies and their customers and drive progress: “In a world where every company is becoming digital, there’s an opportunity for every type of organisation in every industry to embrace tech intensity: to be fast adopters of best-in-class technology and to build their own unique digital capabilities. This is how firms will increasingly compete and grow.”

Which is not to say that it is all just about growth and profit, of course. “We don’t want our customers to become dependent on Microsoft. We want to see our customers becoming independent with Microsoft.”

It is this confluence of innovating and creating a culture focused on making a positive impact that has consistently informed Nadella’s leadership – and cultivated the need to find meaning in work.

“One of my former managers told me that all of us spend far too much time at work for it to not have meaning,” he says. “I’ve taken that advice to heart throughout my career, and I encourage everyone who works at the company to connect their purpose and passion with their work and use Microsoft as a platform to pursue it.”

When asked about his own legacy, he is typically humble: “As CEO, I have a responsibility to help ensure that the person who succeeds me is able to achieve more success than I did. I don’t think any single leader can claim ‘I came in and fixed everything,’ but if I can help build a lasting institution, where my successor’s success is amplified, then I will have done something right.”

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