My first boss was a bully.
Just before I started working for him, a rumor circulated that he’d once thrown a desk out the window. Maybe the story was apocryphal, but it didn’t feel that way to those of us under his thumb. He would yell and curse. We were all afraid of him. As unpleasant as it was, though, I have to admit that the fear was a powerful motivator.
But there are other, better ways to get a team to perform. In today’s business world, bullying tactics are increasingly backfiring (case in point: Travis Kalanick at Uber). Meanwhile, a new breed of CEOs is rising, defined less by “command and control” and more by “inspire and empower.”
Following the notoriously combative Steve Ballmer, Nadella has dramatically revived Microsoft’s reputation and its relevance by emphasizing collaboration and what he calls a “learn-it-all” culture versus the company’s historical know-it-all one.
The results have been eye-popping: more than $250 billion in market value gains in less than four years — a feat that, quantitatively, puts Nadella in the pantheon of Bezos, Cook, Page and Zuckerberg.
Empathy and soft skills have often been derided in the cut-throat bureaucracies of corporate America. “Suck it up” has been the edict to aspiring masters of the universe; generosity of spirit and openness have often taken a backseat to aggressiveness and subterfuge. Which is what makes Nadella’s ascension so refreshing.
His playbook includes these five lessons:
1. Showing weakness is a strength
Rather than walking tall and carrying a big stick, Nadella has demonstrated confidence and authority through his willingness to admit fault. A few months into his tenure, he made a major faux pas at a conference for women engineers that spawned a wave of criticism. He owned the mistake and admitted to biases that he hadn’t realized.
The episode ended up building his credibility in the long run.
2. Listen and learn
Nadella describes working for Bill Gates in uncompromising terms: “Bill’s not the kind of guy who walks into your office and says, ‘Hey, great job.’ It’s like, ‘Let me start by telling you the 20 things that are wrong with you today.’”
Nadella’s style is to emphasize what’s been done right. He starts each senior leadership meeting with a segment called “Researcher of the Amazing,” showcasing something inspiring at the company.
3. Patience and urgency can co-exist
Nadella says Microsoft’s cultural evolution is an ongoing process. But that hasn’t prevented him from acting boldly — whether shutting down the mobile phone business and eliminating 20,000 jobs or buying LinkedIn.
4. People can grow
Nadella recruited new talent into the company, and he has emphasized the importance of an outsider’s perspective. But he has put even more focus on unleashing potential within the ranks. He’s relied on instilling a “growth mind-set,” a concept borrowed from Stanford professor Carol Dweck.
He sees resistance to change as a behavior rather than a fixed personality trait.
As he wrote in “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone”: “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. In every meeting, don’t just listen — make it possible for others to speak so that everyone’s ideas come through.
5. Empathy is a tool
Some may look at Nadella’s efforts and say, “All he needed to succeed was to not be a jerk.” That underestimates the nuance of what effective empathy requires. Putting yourself in someone else’s place is a powerful way to alter behavior and outcomes.
Admiration and encouragement, high expectations and uncompromising standards: A skillful manager uses all of these to get the best out of us.
I have learned that from all my bosses, and from Nadella, too. As leaders, colleagues, employees and consumers, we are senders and recipients of myriad messages, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and subconscious.
In the best case, we take time periodically to step back and assess our actions — and those of others — to appreciate the long-term implications.
Only then can we experience the life, the career and the impact that we want most.