Know thyself, know thy company: Microsoft’s CEO on seeking purpose at work

Satya Nadella is the CEO of Microsoft and the bestselling author of Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone. High-performance psychologist Michael Gervais recently hosted him on the Finding Mastery podcast to discuss his philosophy on finding a cohesive, authentic identity and purpose in the workplace.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Satya and Michael’s full conversation, click here.

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Satya: I’ve been at Microsoft for really all my life, 25 years. The thing that I’ve come to realize is [that] companies, like people, have a core identity. We do well when we do things that fit with our core sense of purpose. That’s what you see us exercising a lot more at Microsoft—being both proud of who we are and what we do.

Michael: Where did you come to understand that purpose is so important? Is that from your introspective arc of growth yourself, or is that from studying people that do extraordinary things?

Satya: Quite honestly, a lot of it is something that I’ve learned as I’ve grown in this company. A cycle gets created between the original ideas and the culture that implicitly grows [in] successful companies. In some sense, you get into this amazing loop between your concept capability and culture. So when I came in as a CEO, having grown up inside this company, I went back and essentially pattern matched. I asked, “Where are we at our best and where did we go astray?” It is always when we were purpose-driven, and mission-driven [that] we had a culture which allowed us to build capability. To build great products people love, you have to have a sense of purpose and of culture.

“It is always when we were purpose-driven, and mission-driven [that] we had a culture which allowed us to build capability.”

Michael: You’re taking the insights of how people grow and mapping it into an organization. Do you [think] that the organization has one heartbeat [and] one mind? Are you speaking as if it was one body?

Satya: No, [but] that’s interesting. You need an amazing amount of diversity—diversity of skills, gender, ethnicity. If you take our mission of empowering every person in every organization on the planet to achieve more to heart, then you have to represent the planet.

Michael: I want to try to understand how you’ve done something extraordinary. You challenge and harden ideas with your peers and you work with them to make sure they understand what you’re wanting to articulate or activate. You know how to bring the entire organization along. What I want to understand is how you do that—is it intellect first and then intuition, or intuition first then intellect?

Satya: It’s a feedback loop between the two. I’m not explicit about it because I definitely can build on other people’s ideas and synthesize. One of the greatest powers is to be able to take one person’s idea [and] another person’s idea and make [them] more powerful by bringing them together. That’s an art, and I’m imperfect at it, at best. The thing that I catch myself [doing], more often than not, is showing impatience. When you are impatient you make giant leaps, but the team is not yet there with you. I can at least acknowledge those mistakes—not maybe as efficiently as I should be, but I’m getting there.

“One of the greatest powers is to be able to take one person’s idea [and] another person’s idea and make [them] more powerful by bringing them together.”

Michael: Can your staff do the same? Are you creating a culture where they can also raise their hand and say, “I made a massive mistake that cost people jobs,” or what have you?

Satya: If we learned anything from Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, it is that they [have] such brutal intellectual honesty. They would call it as they saw it. That [attitude is] something growing up in Microsoft. You can make mistakes, but you know some mistakes would [put] your career in jeopardy. But it’s always better for you to acknowledge those mistakes, because that’s how you get better.

“It’s always better for you to acknowledge those mistakes, because that’s how you get better.”

Michael: How do you create space for yourself in the moment? In my head, there [are] two basic types of thoughts—thoughts that create space so you can play, do expansive thought, and thoughts that create constriction or tension. We need a balance of both, but if we spend too much time on constrictive [thoughts] we become anxious and frustrated.

The idea that you have an intuitive way to create space internally, which then allows other people [around you] to have enough space to play and explore, might be one of the many reasons you’ve been on this radical upswing. Can you deconstruct how you create space inside your own [mind]?

SatyaI’ve always loved new ideas. Then I want to be able to grow [new ideas] with a better sense of empathy. The job that I have at Microsoft [has] given me an amazing platform to be able to connect the two. Also being a parent at home has given me the opportunity to connect the two. It’s all about ideas increasing empathy for people around me, and then [being] able to take action on that insight.

Michael: So were you naturally born as an empathetic person?

Satya: Not at all.

Michael: How did you get better at it?

Satya: This is where I think that there is an innate capability in all of us. The question is “How do we develop this?” It’s life. It’s really my life’s experience whether it’s the birth of my son or whether it’s say what I said at Grace Hopper and reflecting on that and learning from it, [which] gives me completely fresh perspective. It’s the ability for us to basically take life experience and introspect on it.

By the way, I think of this as core to our business. Empathy is an existential issue for any leader because, after all, innovation in a company comes from the meeting unmet, unarticulated needs. There’s no way we are going to meet unmet on articulated needs of customers if you don’t have that deep sense of empathy.

“Empathy is an existential issue for any leader because, after all, innovation in a company comes from the meeting unmet, unarticulated needs.”

Michael: The title of your book is Hit Refresh. Is it fair to say that there was at least one “hitting refresh” prior to the insights that came out in the book?

Satya: Oh for sure. The foreword, written by Bill Gates, captures the logic that’s in our browsers when you hit refresh. You hit refresh [when] you have to change but you also have to be smart about what you change so that you don’t unnecessarily increase the page load time. We are going through a continuous process of renewal, and this continuous process of renewal does have a bit of punctuated equilibrium. There are moments in time when you actually have to acknowledge a big refresh, and that I think is super important.

Michael: How do you think about or even describe the concept of mastery?

Satya: It comes down to being deeply in touch with what gives you purpose. One of the things that I say a lot is, “What if you took what you do at Microsoft and flipped it?” and said “Hey I don’t work at Microsoft, Microsoft works for me.” That is because you are someone who has a particular passion [or] a particular personal philosophy, and you’re able to turn work into an instrument of realizing the deeper meaning in pursuing your personal philosophy or passion. To me, mastery is that ability to lead a more purposeful life, and then take all of life and turn it into a platform, because that’s all we have. So, you might as well make use of it.

This article first appeared on Heleo.  


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