Satya Nadella, Empath.


Shift Forum Reads

Hate Management books? Me too. But Nadella’s Hit Refresh is a worthy call to arms not only to his troops, but to business overall.

What, exactly, does Microsoft stand for?

I’ve been covering the company for three full decades, and for the first two, that was an easy question to answer. Under Gates the company stood for its core mission: ruthlessly putting a computer on every desk and in every home. That meant cunning domination of profitable, winner-takes-all tech markets. Microsoft under Gates crushed its earnings, took names, and made shareholders rich.

So rich, in fact, that the DOJ took note and slapped the company with a humiliating antitrust defeat, just as the dot com crash was brutalizing the entire technology category.

Enter Steve Ballmer.

Under early to mid-term Ballmer, the company spread into a comfortable, if uninspiring, middle age. It stood for all things corporate: the Enterprise, Windows Everywhere, and, let’s face it, a fair amount of hand waving. Its stock meandered. Microsoft was Sleepy Dad in a worn out robe, tired of the cubicle but still chained to it.

This mid-life demanded a crisis. One year after the launch of the iPhone, Steve Ballmer met Google’s secret weapon: YouTube.

I spent untold hours studying this video…utterly transfixed by its power to sum up Ballmer’s declining Microsoft. He was admiringly enthusiastic, and inarguably committed, but still and all, here was a dorky middle-aged dude, sweating through his Dockers, on a mission to….do what exactly? Make corporations more…corporate? By being on a mission to…have developers?

The problem, in hindsight, was clear. Microsoft was a company that had already fulfilled its mission. There actually WAS a computer on every desk and in every home. So now what?

For almost 15 years, the company didn’t have an answer.

But plenty of newer, shinier companies did. Google, Facebook, Amazon — they were on a mission, and they had no problem evangelizing their world-beating point of view.

The cool kids in the hoodies took center stage. Then the wise acid-tripping uncle from Oregon got everyone hooked on iMacs, iPhoto, and ultimately, the iPhone. Remember those ads?

Yeah. Around then, Microsoft stopped mattering in the tech culture zeitgeist, except as the butt of a joke. Apple and Google had stepped into tech’s flattering spotlight, only to be lapped a few years later by their kissing cousin Facebook. Microsoft seemed content to play a supporting role. Ever again the awkward Dad, it watched “the next Bill Gates” emerge at the helm of companies that made….what? Advertising?!

And then…Bing. Aww look, the press chortled. Microsoft’s doing a search engine too! That’s funny. And kind of sad. Hasn’t Google won? What next? A social network?! I hear MySpace is for sale….

And then….Nokia. That was an even larger eye roll — a has-been phone company already twice lapped by Apple?! Really?

But that’s not how I thought about Microsoft — I knew the company too well. I wasn’t writing much during that period (I was running a startup), but I was certainly paying attention. And I was up in Redmond a lot. Tens of thousands of super smart humans powered that company then (and now), and most of them were working on super interesting things. And while Bing proved an expensive hedge, it was in fact a clever way to wedge entirely new thinking about building products into a company that previously thought it knew everything about software. Bing is now profitable, it turns out. And thanks to Bing, Microsoft learned how to make software like the cool kids.

Ballmer put a rising star in charge of Bing. He was told if he failed, he’d probably have to leave Microsoft — there was that much on the line. That rising star was named Satya Nadella. As we all know, he’s now the third CEO of Microsoft — and three years into his tenure, he’s written a manifesto of sorts.

Given all that history, I was eager to read it.

Well OK, maybe not eager. I’ll admit I came at Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh with more than a little skepticism — a first-time CEO just a few years into his tenure, writing a book about the cultural turnaround still in process? Seems … premature. I have a healthy skepticism of executives turned dispensers of advice. Such books rarely hold much interest. Add to that my personal distaste for traditional business or management books (so many of them are just terrible), well, it was likely I wouldn’t get through the thing.

But I did, and I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think you should too.

First, Nadella displays a disarming honesty about the intent behind his book. He wants to write “from the fog of war” — it’s as if the process of thinking through the book helped him in his personal mission to shift Microsoft’s culture. Since his ascension in 2014, Microsoft has been in the midst of a historic turnaround, and while Nadella has gotten ample credit for the journey so far, he admits it’s premature to declare victory, often the purpose of corporate tomes. Instead, Nadella explains that the process of framing and writing Hit Reset helped him to codify the work yet to do. A less subtle rationale becomes apparent in the reading — the book is a rallying cry to Nadella’s 100,000+ employees, and of course the extended ecosystem that determines the company’s fate — the capital markets, the partners, the customers.* And in this, you have to give Nadella credit for both courage and vulnerability: If this book bombs, so too, most likely, will his tenure.

But the book isn’t a bomb. In fact, Nadella and his co authors avoid languishing in the standard wallows of management books. It’s broken into three neat sections. The first is Nadella’s personal journey, which feels both genuine and fundamental to his philosophy of management. It’s also a hell of a story. The second is an exploration of that philosophy, and how it drives his reshaping of Microsoft’s revised mission (I wrote about that mission here). The third section pulls back and considers the larger forces shaping business and society, with particular nods to major policy and technology trends shaping our future.

In the writing, Nadella demonstrates he is a student of both his company and of literature, as comfortable quoting Doug Coupland’s Microserfs as he is Karl Marx. Throughout he evinces the concept of empathy, and he stresses that the most important competitive characteristic of a modern company is its culture. And he considers the CEO the curator of that culture.

Nadella does not shrink from acknowledging his failures — including a massive gaffe at the Grace Hopper conference in his first year. Had he failed to address that early misstep, I’d likely not have finished reading the book. But he owns it, and he clearly learned from it. That’s the kind of leadership we need more of in business.

In Hit Refresh Nadella is resetting any number of old Microsoft habits, and giving his troops black-and-white, on-the-record permission to do things a new way. Partnerships? Yes, we’re going to be the best partner out there (this was never Microsoft in its first two incarnations). Cloud-based AI-driven products that are responsive to customer data in real time? That’s what we’re all about! Abandoning old school, short term profits in favor of costly but long term winning strategies? All in! Thinking about sustainability and impact across all stakeholders, not just shareholders? Check, check, and check!

Hit Refresh presents Nadella as a leader who thinks deeply about the impact of his company and his industry, and it certainly stands alone as a text that commits him and his company to a path that gives comfort to those concerned with the intentions of the current tech oligarchy. Sure, there are any number of eye rolls in the book, but Nadella’s voice throughout affords them forgiveness.

Of this, I am certain: Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Tim Cook haven’t got a book this good in them. I look forward to the sequel.

Get the book:

  • I’m guessing a spot in Hit Refresh’s index is now a place of honor inside Microsoft’s halls.

Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh is one of many books we’re reading at NewCo as we prepare for the conversation at the Shift Forum this February. Others include Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, Tim O’Reilly’s WTF, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis, and many others. If you’re interested in Shift Forum’s new Reads program, be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter here.

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