Secret sauce: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella asked employees not for profits, but for individual growth

An excerpt from the India-born Nadella’s book about his leadership, ‘Hit Refresh’.

Earlier in the year, Anu had handed me a copy of Dr Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dr Dweck’s research is about overcoming failures by believing you can. “The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.” She divides the world between learners and non-learners, demonstrating that a fixed mindset will limit you and a growth mindset can move you forward. The hand you are dealt is just the starting point. Passion, toil, and training can help you to soar. (She even writes persuasively about what she calls the “CEO disease,” an affliction of business leaders who fail to have a growth mindset.)

My wife wasn’t thinking of my success when she gave me Dr Dweck’s book. She was thinking of the success of one of our daughters who has learning differences. Her diagnosis took us on a journey of discovery to help her. First was the internal journey, concern for her but also the need to educate ourselves. Next came action. We found a school in Vancouver, Canada, that specialises in learning differences like hers. We spent five years of our lives splitting time and family between Vancouver and Seattle in order to augment her regular schooling while keeping Zain’s care consistent in Seattle.

All of this meant separation at many levels: husband and wife; father and daughters; mother and son.

We were maintaining two lives in two countries. Anu drove thousands of miles between Seattle and Vancouver in rain, snow, and darkness, and so did I on alternate weekends for five years. It was a trying time, but Anu and the girls made some exceptional friends in Canada. As a family, we learned together that these predicaments were universal. Families from California, Australia, Palestine, and New Zealand converged on the Vancouver school with issues and challenges. I discovered that recognition of these universal predicaments leads to universal empathy – empathy for and among children, adults, parents, and teachers. Empathy, we learned, was indivisible and was a universal value. And we learned that empathy is essential to deal with problems everywhere, whether at Microsoft or at home; here in the United States or globally. at is also a mindset, a culture.

As I continued my speech at the global sales conference, the empathy I felt for my kids and the empathy I felt for the people listening in that audience were on my mind and in my emotions. “We can have all the bold ambitions. We can have all the bold goals. We can aspire to our new mission. But it’s only going to happen if we live our culture, if we teach our culture. And to me that model of culture is not a static thing. It is about a dynamic learning culture. In fact, the phrase we use to describe our emerging culture is ‘growth mindset,’ because it’s about every individual, every one of us having that attitude – that mindset – of being able to overcome any constraint, stand up to any challenge, making it possible for us to grow and, thereby, for the company to grow.”

I told my colleagues that I was not talking bottomline growth.

I was talking about our individual growth. We will grow as a company if everyone, individually, grows in their roles and in their lives. My wife, Anu, and I had been blessed with wonderful children, and we’ve had to learn their special needs. at has changed everything for us. “It’s taken me on this journey of developing more empathy for others. And what gives me deep meaning is that ability to take new ideas and empathy for people; to connect the two and have great impact. at’s what gives me the greatest satisfaction. It’s why I work for Microsoft. And that’s what I aspire for each one of you to do as you work here.”

Our culture needed to be about realising our personal passions and using Microsoft as a platform to pursue that passion. For me, my greatest satisfaction has come from my passion to see technology become more accessible for people with disabilities and to help improve their lives in a myriad of ways.

Just as my predecessor Steve Ballmer had done at these annual gatherings, I’d closed my speech with a call to action, but one with a very different mood and purpose. I had essentially asked employees to identify their innermost passions and to connect them in some way to our new mission and culture. In so doing we would transform our company and change the world. When you’re CEO, these goals can be easy to imagine, but when an employee’s aperture is smaller – a marketer in Malaysia or technical support in Texas – such a mission can seem distant and unattainable. So the challenge I’d set forth in my speech might be a daunting one. I wondered whether I’d connected with the audience or left them baffled and untouched.

Feeling my emotions beginning to overcome me, I skipped my last slide and quickly exited the stage. Jill pointed at the doorway to the auditorium, not my private green room, “Watch with them.” As a video started presenting not just the year’s progress but the expansive, mission-driven opportunity ahead, I slipped back into the auditorium through a side entrance. No one could see me in the darkened auditorium. Every eye was glued to the screen, but I was watching them, gauging the emotion in the room. Everyone was locked in and some were softly wiping away tears. I knew then that we were onto something.

Excerpted with permission from Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft. Published by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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