How Satya Nadella Helped Microsoft Rediscover Its Soul



“Longevity in this business is about being able to reinvent yourself or invent the future.” — Satya Nadella

At the core of every company is its soul – the motivation and inner direction that drives the company to do what it does uniquely best.

Figuring out the soul of your company is key to driving successful digital transformation.

Or, to put it another way, if you don’t create clarity around the core or soul of your company, your company will likely struggle and stall, and eventually fail.

After all, the market reviews companies that solve problems well with clarity and conviction and customer-obsession.

With this article, I aim to create a very clear picture of how exactly Satya Nadella helped Microsoft transform to a digital company for the digital era.

I’ll draw from example from his original email that was shared on the Web, as well as nuggets from his fantastic book, Hit Refresh, where he chronicles his leadership journey.

Just keep in mind that while it helps to learn how other companies find their soul, or their core, each company is a unique snowflake… and that’s the point…embrace your uniqueness.

Summary of How Satya Nadella Created a Transformative Vision for Microsoft

Satya helped create a transformative vision for Microsoft, first by rediscovering its soul.

As part of this process, he tried to answer the questions, “Why do we exist?” and “What do we do next?”

He listened and he listened a lot, to employees, to leaders, to customers, to partners, to really and deeply understand, what makes Microsoft…Microsoft… and what would be the gaping void in the universe if Microsoft were suddenly defunct.

Satya also created a very clear view, a worldview, of the stage that Microsoft would be operating in.   To do so, he looked at where the world was going based on two key trends, mobility and Cloud computing, and he simplified them into a mobile-first, cloud-first world.

But rather than anchor on the obvious, like mobile devices or phones, he went to where there was a gap in the market, and a more meaningful opportunity—the mobility of human experiences… the “digital work and life experiences” of every person.

Knowing that culture eats strategy for breakfast, Satya then also created clarity around a culture of learning and growth through a growth mindset.  And declared that the company would operate as One Microsoft, and that Microsoft would be a culture that was inclusive and diverse by design.

Finally, Satya shared that transformative vision through an email to all employees that spelled out Microsoft’s mission, its bold ambition, its worldview, and its culture to drive a path forward into the digital era.

Without a Soul, Your Company Struggles and Dies

When a company does not know its soul, or its core, it struggles and it stalls.

It struggles internally and externally.

Internally, your company struggles because there is a lack of clarity around customers the company serves, and what unique value the company creates.  This creates confusion among the ranks for leaders across the company because they lack a shared vision or meaningful ambitions.  And this also creates confusion around where to invest and where to focus innovation efforts.

And this internal lack of clarity around your company core or soul, also translates to confusion for customers and for the market.  Customers don’t know where to position you in their mind.  They don’t trust you because they can’t figure out what you are about or why you do what you do.

Or, as Satya Nadella, would put it… “Why do you (your company) exist?”

The Microsoft Mission and Bold Ambitions at a Glance

To share the transformative vision of Microsoft, Satya wrote an email to put into words Microsoft’s mission and its bold ambitions at a glance.

In a famous email to Microsoft employees, Satya Nadella framed the future of Microsoft.

Satya identified the new mission statement as:

“Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

And he discussed Microsoft’s vision and strategy around 3 key things:

  1. Reinvent productivity and business processes
  2. Build the intelligent cloud platform
  3. Create more personal computing

It was a very simple and meaningful business story and easy for everybody inside and outside of Microsoft to understand and internalize.

It’s simple, elegant, and paints Microsoft’s meaningful mission to empower every person and organization to achieve more.   And it plays to Microsoft’s unique strengths in the universe as a platform and productivity company.

And Satya set the stage for Microsoft by looking at two key trends, mobility and cloud computing, and combined them into a simpler world view…a mobile-first, cloud-first world, with a focus on the mobility of human experiences.

And that’s how a transformative vision was born.

Now, let’s step in behind the scenes to “the making of”, which Satya shares in depth and detail in his book, Hit Refresh.

Why Do We Exist?

It’s a simple question.  But it’s also profound.

Why do you (your company) exist in the world?

Answering that question well, with authenticity, is the key to discovering the soul of your company.

Satya writes:

“‘Our industry does not respect tradition.  What it respects is innovation.

It’s our collective challenge to make Microsoft thrive in a mobile-first and a cloud-first world.’

If there was any one theme I wanted to emphasize that day, it was that we must discover what would be lost in the world if Microsoft just disappeared.

We had to answer for ourselves, what is the company about?  Why do we exist?

I told them it was time for us to rediscover our soul–what makes us unique.”

Soul for a Company Provides Motivation and Inner Direction

The soul of your company isn’t religion.

It’s reason.

It’s the answer to why you exist and what you are about, and what makes you uniquely you.

Satya writes:

“In it, Kidder teaches us that technology is nothing more than the collective soul of those who build it.

The technology is fascinating, but even more fascinating is the profound obsession of its designers.

And so what is soul in this context of a company?

I don’t mean soul in a religious sense.  It is the thing that comes most naturally.  It is the inner voce.  It’s what motivates and provides inner direction to apply your capability.”

Microsoft’s Soul is Empowering People

Behind all the software, there is a motivating force that brings Softies together under the umbrella of Microsoft.

It’s to empower people.

And that’s the soul of Microsoft.

Satya writes:

“What is the unique sensibility that we as a company have?

For Microsoft that soul is about empowering people, and not just individuals, but also the institutions they build–enterprises like schools, hospitals, businesses, government agencies, and non-profits.”

Apple’s Soul is Great Design for Consumer Products

Just because Microsoft and Apple are software companies does not mean they have the same motivating force or inner core.

In fact, if they did, chances are one of them would no longer exist.

While Microsoft’s core is “empowering everyone”, Apple’s “core” or soul is really “great design for consumer products”.

Satya writes:

“Steve Jobs understood what the soul of a company is.  He once said that ‘design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.’

I agree.  Apple will always remain true to its soul as long as its inner voice, its motivation, is about great design for consumer products.”

Microsoft Makes Technology Accessible to Everyone

A company’s soul reflects its values.

One of Satya’s core values is inclusion.

That value is reflected in the culture of Microsoft.

When it all boils down, a company’s culture is a reflection of its values.  And the values are a reflection of the leadership.

Satya writes:

“The soul of our company is different.  I knew that Microsoft needed to regain its soul as the company that makes powerful technology accessible to everyone and every organization–democratizing technology.

It’s not that we had lost our soul, but we needed renewal, a renaissance.

In the 1970’s, Bill and Paul Allen started Microsoft with the goal of helping to put a computer on every desk and in every home.

That was a bold, inspiring, and audacious ambition, one they accomplished.  Democratizing and personalizing technology. 

How many organizations can say they achieved their founding mission?”

Share Your Worldview

It helps to share with others how you look at the world, and how you make sense of it.

This is your worldview.

When leaders of a company share their worldview, it helps create clarity, especially in a world with lots of moving parts, and lots of ways to look at an ever-changing landscape.

By sharing your worldview, you create a shared way to look at and act on the world.

It helps others understand your choices and what’s driving them.  This is similar to how Jeff Bezos shares his worldview when he writes his letters to the analysts about his take on the future and how he frames the opportunities.

To put it another way, without a shared worldview, it can be difficult to frame and act on opportunities as a cohesive company.

Satya writes:

“Worldview is an interesting term, rooted in cognitive philosophy.  Simply put, it is how a person comprehensively sees the world–across political, social, and economic borders.

What are the common experiences we all share?

The question I had been asking before becoming CEO–why do we exist?–forced me to change my tech worldview, and, similarly, now every leader at Microsoft was changing theirs as well.”

The Mobility of Human Experience is What Mattered

When you figure out what really matters, it might mean giving up your legacy, in order to create a new legacy.

That means taking a fresh look at the world and figuring out what your company truly needs to become in order to serve your customers best.

Satya writes:

“We no longer lived in a PC-centric world.  

Computing was becoming more ubiquitous.  Intelligence was becoming more ambient, meaning computers could observe, collect data, and turn that feedback into insights.

We were seeing an ever-increasing wave of digitization of our life, business, and our world more broadly.

This was made possible by an ever-growing network of connected devices, incredible computing capability from the cloud, insights from big data, and intelligence from machine learning.

I simplified all of this and encouraged Microsoft to become ‘mobile-first and cloud-first.’  Not a PC-first or even Phone-first.

We needed to envision a world where the mobility of the human experience across all devices was what mattered, and the cloud made that mobility possible, enabling the new generation of intelligent experiences.

The transformation we would undertake across all part of our businesses would help Microsoft and our customers thrive in this new world.”

Don’t Motivate Your Company Through Envy

When you try to figure out where to put your unique dent in the universe, it can easy to get envious of other companies in your industry.

That’s a trap.

If you drive from envy, then you won’t discover or reveal your company’s own true core.

Satya writes:

“It might be easy to be motivated to change through envy.  We could envy what Apple had built with its iPhone and its iPad franchise, or what Google had created with its low-cost Android phones and tablets.

But envy is negative and outer-directed, not driven from within, and so I knew that it wouldn’t carry us very far down the path to true renewal.”

Don’t Motivate Your Company Through Competitive Zeal

And it’s not about trying to one up the competition.

It’s asking a deeper question about what is your company’s purpose and what can it do well with the unique combination of strengths and opportunities that it has.

Satya writes:

“We could also motivate ourselves through competitive zeal.  Microsoft is known for rallying the troops with competitive fire.

The press loves that, but it’s not me.

My approach is to lead with a sense of purpose and pride in what we do, not envy or combativeness.”

Fill the Gap You Can Uniquely Fill

As part of the process of figuring out the operating context for Microsoft, Satya took the balcony view of the competitive landscape.

He saw two trends, mobility and Cloud computing, that together, represented a bigger opportunity.

But he had to pivot.

Rather than focus on devices for mobility, the bigger opportunity was to focus on the mobility of human experiences.

Satya writes:

“Our senior leadership team recognized a gap in the competitive landscape that Microsoft was in the unique position to fill.

You see, while our competitivness defined their products as mobile, we could be about the mobility of human experiences, experienced made possible by our cloud technologies.

These two trends together, mobile and cloud, were fundamental to our transformation.

“In fact, our marketing chief, Chris Caposella, would produce an ad for the Microsoft Cloud based on a speech I gave on this subject.

In the ad, Spain’s Real Madrid soccer team is seen attacking, nimbly sprinting toward the goal as Grammy Award-winning hip hop artist Common tells the audience, ‘We live in a world of mobile technology, but it is not the device that is mobile.

It is you.'”

A Company’s Greatest Strengths Might Already Be Part of Its Soul

It’s very possible that deep within your company core, already lay its greatest strengths.

Satya writes:

“where we went wrong initially was failing to recognize that our greatest strengths were already part of the soul of our company–investing new hardware for Windows, making computing more personal, and making our cloud services work across any device and any platform.

We should only be in the phone business when we have something that is really differentiated.”

Ask, Why are We Here?… and What Do We Do Next?

Once you figure out why you exist, you still need to figure out what are you going to do about it.

You need to define your bold ambitions.

Your bold ambitions will call upon your company’s core or soul to use it’s capabilities to realize its greatest potential.

Satya writes:

“As I listened, there were two questions I was still trying to answer. 

The first, why are we here?

Answering this question would be central to defining the company for years to come.

The second question was, what do we do next?

There is that closing scene in The Candidate where Robert Redford having finally won the election, pulls his advisor into a room and asks, ‘What do we do now?’

For starters, I decided to listen.”

We Exist to Build Products to Empower Others

When you know why your company exists, you can infuse that meaningful purpose into everybody’s work.

Satya writes:

“To my first question, why does Microsoft exist, the message was loud and clear. 

We exist to build products that empower others.

That is the meaning we’re all looking to infuse in our work.”

Change the World

While changing the world can sound like a lofty goal, it’s always been a part of Microsoft’s fabric.

Note that if changing the world might seem to broad or too big, you can think in terms of changing your world—starting with your own backyard, as many small business owners do.

They think globally, act locally, and expand their sphere of influence over time.

Satya writes:

“I heard other things as well.  Employees wanted a CEO who would make crucial changes, but one who also respected the ideal of Microsoft, which had always been to change the world.

They wanted a clear, tangible, and inspiring vision.  They wanted to hear more frequently about progress in transparent and simple ways.

Engineers wanted to lead again, not follow.  They wanted to up the coolness.  We had technology the press would fawn over in Silicon Valley, such as leading-edge artificial intelligence, but we weren’t showing it off.

What they really demanded was a road map to remove paralysis.”

The Short-List of What To Do Next

With clarity around the core or soul of Microsoft, and a transformative vision to roll out, Satya made a short list of things he learned from his listening tour to be an effective leader and to drive culture and change from the top, while empowering everyone bottom up.

Satya writes:

“On my second question, where do we go from here, I became convinced that the new CEO of Microsoft needed to do several things very well right away, during the first year.

  • Communicate clearly and regularly our sense of mission, worldview, and business and innovation ambition.
  • Drive cultural change from top to bottom, and get the right team in the right place.
  • Build new and surprising partnerships in which we can grow the pie and delight customers.
  • Be ready to catch the next wave of innovation and platform shifts.  Reframe our opportunity for a mobile-and cloud-first world, and drive our execution with urgency.
  • Stand for timeless values, and restore productivity and economic growth for everyone.”

The Mission of a Company is a Statement About Its Soul

A well-framed company mission reflects its core and its soul.

Satya writes:

“My first title at Microsoft had been ‘evangelist,’ a common term in technology for someone who drives a standard or product to achieve critical mass.

Now here I was evangelizing the notion that we needed to rediscover our soul.  The mission of a company is in many ways a statement about its soul, and that’s where I went first.”

Define Your Mission, Worldview, Ambitions, and Culture in One Page

When you share your transformative vision, consolidate the core parts that matter the most into a single page.

Make it easy to share and articulate the big ideas and the broad strokes.

Satya writes:

“To make things real and drive fidelity of the ideas through an organization of 100,000-plus people operating across more than 190 countries we developed a clear connection between our mission and our culture.

We define dour mission, worldview, ambitions, and culture in one page- no small feat for a company that loves massive PowerPoint decks.

That was the relatively easy part.

The harder part was to not tweak it- to let it stand.

I’d want to edit a word here or there, add a row, just tinker with it before each speech.

Then, I’d be reminded again ‘consistency is better than perfection.’”

Everything You Do Must Reinforce Your Mission, Ambitions, and Culture

Words matter.

But actions speak louder than words.

Satya writes:

“We needed to inspire and drive change.  We challenged ourselves, ‘At the end of the next year if we were tried in a court of law and the charge was that we failed to pursue oru mission, would there be enough evidence to convict us?’ 

Just saying interesting things wasn’t enough.

I, all of us, had to do them.

And our employees had to see how everything we did reinforced our mission, ambitions, and culture.

Our three ambitions defined how we organized teams and reported results.  Our mission guided where I visited and who I met while I was there.”

An All-Company Email, Sort of Manifesto

Satya synthesized his transformative vision into a very simple and compelling memo, and yet, very provocative and profound call to action.

Satya writes:

“In order to accelerate our innovation, we must rediscover our soul–our unique core.

We must all understand and embrace what only Microsoft can contribute to the world and how we can one again change the world.

I consider the job before us to be  bolder and more ambitious than anything we have ever done.

Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile first, cloud-first world. 

We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.”

I wrote that productivity for us goes well beyond documents, spreadsheets, and slides. 

We will obsess over helping people who are swimming in a growing sea of devices, apps, data, and social networks. 

We will build software to be more predictive, personal, and helpful.

We will think about customers as ‘dual users,’ people who use technology for their work, their school, and their personal digital life.

In the email I inserted the image of a target and in its center appeared the words, ‘digital work and life experiences,’ surrounded by our cloud platform and computer devices.

Employees responded immediately.  In just the first twenty-four hours I heard from hundreds of employees in every part of the company and in every part of the world.

They said the language of empowering everyone on the planet to achieve more inspired them personally, and they saw how it applied to their daily work, whether they were a coder, designer, marketer, or customer-support technician.”

I hope now that by walking through the process, you see just how powerful it can be to discover, or re-discover, a company’s core, it’s soul, and share it to galvanize the company around a compelling future, and rise above any challenges in the moment.

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