Examining the Leadership Style of Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella

by Maren Fox

February 22, 2019

Satya Nadella is a leader on the rise—for the last five years, he’s served as the CEO of Microsoft, quickly earning a name for himself in the world beyond tech. Because of his alternative approach to leadership, which BK is all about, we took a deep dive into what makes Nadella so special and why he’s a leader to look out for. In his short time as CEO, Nadella has overseen and driven outstanding growth and profits—even more impressive considering this is Microsoft, already a giant in the business world and creators of Windows and Xbox.

So how did he do it? And what can his leadership tell us about how current and future leaders can go from good to great—or better yet, great to the unimaginable? In short, Nadella believes in the power of positive leadership and uses terms such as “growth mindset” and “empathy” that are reinforced by action. As we’ve seen before with leaders who upend command-and-control leadership styles, positive leadership is just one style that can influence a thriving workplace culture where employees feel inspired and trusting, motivated by purpose, and ready to work with others to achieve common goals.

Naturally, we were like a moth to a flame when learning of Nadella and his ideals. He embraces leadership outside the norm, which aligns with the BK mission to completely revolutionize leadership to create a world that works for all. And it seems the feeling could be mutual because Nadella has acknowledged one of BK’s bestselling books, Driver in the Driverless Car by technologist Vivek Wadhwa.

Here’s a closer look at Satya Nadella and how he can be an inspiration for affecting change in your own organization.

The Microsoft Transformation

Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014. At the time, the mega-giant’s stock price had slowed, with mobile technology cutting into traditional computers’ influence and Apple and Google enjoying surging profits. Microsoft wasn’t losing money by any means, but it was in danger of losing a bit of the relevance it had built over the previous three decades.

From the technology side, Nadella immediately announced an intention to prioritize mobile and cloud. "He made a pronouncement on day one—the world is about cloud first, mobile first," said Microsoft Chairman John Thompson in an article reported by CNBC. "He never mentioned Windows one time."

Along with this significant shift in product focus, Nadella also set expectations around how he wanted the Microsoft leadership culture—and, therefore, the culture of the organization—to shift. He placed an intentionally greater emphasis on empathy, individual empowerment, positivity, and growth.

As the story goes, Nadella’s strategies have more than paid off. Today, Microsoft has grown in value by $250 billion and is the world’s fourth-most valuable company. It also has become a serious force in the cloud computing industry since the first day when Nadella said the company would aim its resources that way—which can be a huge indicator of attracting and retaining emerging top talent.

The Nadella Style

In an Inc. interview with Nadella, he offers three things every great leader should create:

  • Clarity

  • Energy

  • Success, no matter the circumstances

Nadella is also a proponent of the growth mindset philosophy, exploring how individuals and teams can develop and thrive rather than what’s holding them back. This philosophy is why he believes success, or key learnings, can be found in any situation. A culture with a growth mindset “requires us to truly understand and share the feelings of another person,” he wrote in an email to Microsoft employees.

If Nadella’s concepts sound familiar, it’s because they are in sync with many of the business philosophies espoused by Berrett-Koehler authors. His positive outlook, for example, is similar to what Kim Cameron advocates for in Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results.

Cameron writes,

Practicing positive leadership involves more than the personal pursuit of excellence or the demonstration of individual capabilities. … Organizations have multiple constituencies that must be addressed; processes, routines, and structures that have to be considered; and cultures, embedded values, and traditions that need to be respected. Employee preferences and relationships must be taken into account, and competitors and customers must be acknowledged.

Like Nadella, Cameron highlights the importance of empathy and acknowledges the effect positive leaders can have on their employees and the subsequent effect empowered employees have upon the entire organization.

Transforming Your Leadership Style

The culture change at Microsoft, spearheaded by Nadella, is impressive to say the least, but any organization and any leader can achieve a transformation that inspires people and increases productivity. All you need to do is to decide to get started, which can simply mean figuring out how to ask the right kind of question.

One strategy that’s becoming increasingly popular with leaders and managers that also embraces a growth mindset is appreciative inquiry, a framework that—like another beloved leadership style, servant leadership—has been around for years. This concept, which lies at the core of Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness, focuses on what’s working well and prioritizes inquiry as the main way to continuously identify what’s working, even when it feels like nothing is (hint: there’s always something to be learned with appreciative inquiry!). Authors Joan McArthur-Blair and Jeanie Cockell write, “The incredible power in appreciative inquiry is that it seeks to uplift, motivate, and move organizations and people forward. Being a resilient leader is not about lingering in a particular state of being but rather always attempting to find the questions, the actions, or the reflections that promote forward movement.”

You’re not imagining it: appreciative inquiry sounds eerily similar to the growth mindset embraced by Nadella. These and plenty of other dynamic and introspective approaches are gaining popularity, and all reside under a general umbrella of positive leadership. Not sure where to start? No worries—we’ve got a recommended reading list for aspiring servant leaders (another leadership styles that values positivity, service, and empathy) and another for new managers.

The best part of emerging leadership styles is that you don’t need to be the CEO of Microsoft to embark on a transformation. Nadella’s philosophy has garnered plenty of attention because of the $800 billion company he’s applied it to, but his passion is achievable by anyone committed to changing and improving their organization. Your proactive leadership might not make headlines just yet, but it will deliver an impact on your colleagues, the employees you oversee, and the customers you reach—and even the organizations and communities you’re a part of. Win-win-win! 

Topics: You, Leadership, Positive Leadership, Leadership and Management

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