Re-Fresh: Cultural Transformation at Microsoft

| By TMA World

Changing Company Culture

After taking over as Microsoft CEO from Steve Ballmer almost three and a half years ago, Satya Nadella appears to be winning in his effort to transform the dysfunctional company culture of ‘dog-eat dog’ – while still managing to grow the business.  “Teamwork was being replaced by internal politics,” he said, and “We were falling behind.”  Morale is now up as well as product quality and the stock price. 

Nadella was to be more than a leadership style change, he was to be a cultural change.  When he was one of several candidates for the next CEO, a board member took him aside and told him that if he wanted the job he would have to show he was really-hungry for it, i.e. be more aggressive (the old culture speaking).  Steve Ballmer, somewhat surprisingly, advised him to go against the grain and be himself.  Hats off to Microsoft for recognizing that his style wasn’t a lack of confidence in his leadership, it was simply different.

Nadella has recently written a personal journey and business book, Hit Refresh, HarperCollins, September 2017 which is as refreshing as it is insightful.  In language somewhat unusual for a CEO, he talks of helping Microsoft “rediscover its soul.”  

Building an Empathetic Culture

His philosophy is based on the power of deep empathy for other people.  His son Zain was born with cerebral palsy, and the challenge forced him to change the way he looks at relationships, both at home and at work.  “Ideas excite me.  Empathy grounds and centers me,” he says.  What is the power of empathy?

  • Empathy improves team work: His team needed to deepen their understandings of one another, and to connect their personal philosophies to their jobs.  He wanted them to connect as people, not cubicle drones.
  • Empathy helps open the mind: With empathy, the mind opens to thinking about other people’s perspectives.  In a Wall Street Journal interview, he said, “The business we are in is to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers.  And there’s no way you’re going to do that well without having empathy and curiosity.”
  • Empathy helps you admit mistakes and move on: Empathy lets you step back, reflect, and change directions (re-fresh).  We all need to hit the re-fresh button occasionally.  Re-fresh is not a destructor of the old.  Bill Gates in the Foreword for the book stresses that re-fresh actually keeps some things while replacing others.

Another part of Nadella’s philosophy is adopting a ‘growth’ mindset.  This is the idea that we should take nothing for granted; we should always be willing to adjust our views as new data comes in. 

Humorosly, one of the ‘fixed’ mindsets in Microsoft was the Orphaned Milk Carton.  Across the world, Microsoft employees would go the fridge, open an eight-ounce carton of milk, and pour a splash into their coffee; they would leave the opened container behind for the next person to finish. The next person would ignore the already opened container – which they assumed would have spoiled milk – open another one and leave that one behind!  Nadella showcased the Orphan Milk Carton culture in a video message to employees.  He turned the behavior into a teachable moment about how we can all become set in our ways.   

As we experience the transformations impacting our lives from disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and quantum computing it is refreshing to know that one of the leaders of a globally powerful tech company approaches his challenge with empathy, humility, thought, and humor.

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