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BW Businessworld

‘C’ In CEO Is For Culture

The CEO is the curator of an organisation’s culture, writes Satya Nadella

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Afew days later, I was in Nanyuki, Kenya, standing inside a solar-powered shipping container that doubles as an Internet café. One of our partners, Mawingu (Swahili for “cloud”) Networks, provides these rural communities with low-cost Internet services, which has opened up access to knowledge for schoolkids and parents alike. In fact, in just one short year educational test scores have dramatically increased.

Inside the café, I stopped to chat with Chris Baraka, who uses the connectivity here to make a living as a writer and teacher. I also observed farmers pausing from their outdoor work to check crop prices. With only a dozen people in attendance, one would never know that I was celebrating the global launch of Windows 10, a Microsoft product at the core of our strategy.

Two decades earlier, the launch of Windows 95, with its pricey theme song, “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones, midnight retail parties, and media hysteria, had helped create a phenomenon of bigger and bigger software launches. Competitors tried to outdo and out-lavish each other’s launch events in hopes of sparking customer impulses to purchase. But that was then, and this is now. A refreshed product launch strategy, one that reflected the times and our new mission and culture, was needed. Initially our communications chief, Frank Shaw, had presented a first-class launch plan complete with visual extravaganzas like setting ablaze the Sydney Opera House with Windows-branded colorful lights. He felt the product needed these kinds of inspiring and hopefully media-attention-getting images in Paris, New York, Tokyo, and elsewhere in order to generate the news coverage we had come to expect. But the approach didn’t feel right. I felt that this was one of those moments to show a different Microsoft.

We were struggling with what to do, and I decided to take a brief break from the meeting to get coffee. During that break, a side conversation among some of the team members rose above the chatter. “We should launch Windows 10 in Kenya.” Kenya is a country where we have customers, partners, and employees.
It’s a nation with great promise, one that with digital transformation could leapfrog over others by getting infrastructure and skills in place.
The launch of Windows 10 wasn’t about one product; it was about our mission. And if we’re going to seek to empower every person on the planet, why not go to the other side of the planet and make that real? I walked down the hall to Frank’s office.

“Let’s take a chance.” I knew that we had built a low-cost, highspeed Internet connectivity solution that leverages an innovative technology called “TV white space”—the unused broadband spectrum that exists in between television channels—to connect rural, poor areas like Nanyuki, Kenya, to the Web. We could show off not just Windows 10 but also its relevance to anyone and everyone, no matter their geography or socioeconomic status.

Frank thought about it another minute and agreed. What better way to demonstrate our new mission and emerging culture than to be in eastern Africa, a region that exemplifies both the challenges and the opportunities for technology to transform and create economic growth? We might not get all of the TV cameras we used to get, but we’d be demonstrating our desire to understand every customer’s context, including that of farmers in a remote African village, for whom technology tools can mean the difference between abject poverty and hope. By embracing this new cultural mindset, we’d be able to start listening, learning more and talking less.

So what did this growth mindset reveal? One of the lessons we took back is that it’s too simplistic to call a country like Kenya a developing economy or the United States a developed one. Both countries have educated, tech-savvy customers capable of using our most sophisticated products, and both countries have potential customers with little or no skills. Sure, there are higher concentrations of one or the other in each country, but it’s a false distinction simply to think of countries as either developed or developing. The Windows 10 launch in Kenya struck a far more global tone for the company, and it also taught us valuable lessons.

I like to think that the C in CEO stands for culture. The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture. As I had told employees in Orlando, anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission. Creating that kind of culture is my chief job as CEO. And so, whether it was through public events like the launch of Windows 10 or through speeches, e-mails, tweets, internal posts, or monthly employee Q&A sessions, I planned to use every opportunity at my disposal to encourage our team to live this culture of dynamic learning.

Of course, exhortations from the CEO are only a fraction of what it takes to create real culture change, especially in a huge, very successful organisation like Microsoft. An organizational culture is not something that can simply unfreeze, change, and then refreeze in an ideal way. It takes deliberate work, and it takes some specific ideas about what the culture should become.

It also requires dramatic, concrete actions that seize the attention of team members and push them out of their familiar comfort zones.

Our culture had been rigid. Each employee had to prove to everyone that he or she knew it all and was the smartest person in the room. Accountability—delivering on time and hitting numbers — trumped everything. Meetings were formal. Everything had to be planned in perfect detail before the meeting. And it was hard to do a skip-level meeting. If a senior leader wanted to tap the energy and creativity of someone lower down in the organization, she or he needed to invite that person’s boss, and so on. Hierarchy and pecking order had taken control, and spontaneity and creativity had suffered as a result.

The culture change I wanted was actually rooted in the Microsoft I originally joined. It was centered on exercising a growth mindset every day in three distinct ways. First, we needed to obsess about our customers. At the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology...

Second, we are at our best when we actively seek diversity and inclusion. If we are going to serve the planet as our mission states, we need to reflect the planet. The diversity of our workforce must continue to improve, and we need to include a wide range of opinions and perspectives in our thinking and decision making..

Finally, we are one company, one Microsoft—not a confederation of fiefdoms. Innovation and competition don’t respect our silos, our org boundaries, so we have to learn to transcend those barriers.  

With permission from Harper Business

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