New Mission Momentum

New Mission Momentum

We needed employees and partners on board for the transformation ahead, and we needed Wall Street to be with us as well. Amy Hood, our CFO, understood...

We needed employees and partners on board for the transformation ahead, and we needed Wall Street to be with us as well. Amy Hood, our CFO, understood the culture change we needed to navigate. She also became the crucial partner I needed for precise attention to quantitative detail across the business.

Her job is where the rubber meets the road. Ahead of my first financial analyst meeting, Amy helped to translate the mission and ambitions into language and goals investors needed to hear. She helped, for example, shape the goal to build a $20 billion cloud business, something investors grabbed on to and tracked quarter after quarter. It took us from a defensive frame amid falling PC and phone share to an offensive mindset. We went from deflection to ownership of our future.

Rediscovering the soul of Microsoft, redefining our mission, and outlining the business ambitions that would help investors and customers grow our company—these had been my priorities with the first inkling that I would become CEO. Getting our strategy right had preoccupied me from the beginning.

But as management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As I concluded my talk that morning in Orlando, I focused on what would be our grandest endeavor, the highest hurdle—transforming the Microsoft culture.

It’s surprising when an arena jammed to the rafters with fifteen thousand people falls silent. It’s also unsettling when nothing can be seen because of the blinding stage lights. That’s how I felt as I stood onstage in Orlando. I could feel a small lump grow in my throat. I was about to launch into a topic that was at once crucial for Microsoft to get right, but also deeply personal for me. “I’m going to close out by talking about our culture. To me it is everything,” I said.

Bill and Steve had made this annual address many times to employees over the years. Bill often looked off into the future, predicting tech trends and how Microsoft would lead. Steve rallied the troops, whipping everyone into a frenzy of excitement. I had used the first part of my speech to proclaim a new mission,
one rooted in rediscovering the soul of our company. I had outlined a series of new business ambitions. But as I had foreshadowed in that Thanksgiving memo to the board of directors, real change depended on culture change.

Culture can be a vague and amorphous term. In his perceptive book, Culture, the literary theorist Terry Eagleton wrote that the idea of culture is multifaceted, “a kind of social unconscious.”

With razor precision, he separates culture into four different meanings, but the most relevant for an organization is the values, customs, beliefs, and symbolic practices that men and women live and breathe each day. Culture is made up of acts that become habitual and accrue to something coherent and meaningful.

Eagleton, who lives in Ireland, notes that a mailbox in his country is evidence of civilization, but the fact they are all painted green is evidence of culture. I think of culture as a complex system made up of individual mindsets—the mindsets of those in front of me. Culture is how an organization thinks and acts, but individuals shape it.

In my own life, it’s the language, routines, and mindset of my parents back in India and my immediate family in Seattle that helped form me and still guide me to this day. It’s that diverse collection of classmates back in Hyderabad who shared a learning mindset that would propel them on to leadership in government, business, sports, and entertainment. In all of these experiences, I’d been encouraged to follow my curiosity and to push the limits of my own capabilities, and now I was beginning to see how this approach would be critical to Microsoft as it confronted the burden of its past success.

Earlier in the year, Anu had handed me a copy of Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. Dr. Dweck’s research is about overcoming failures by believing you can. “The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.”

She divides the world between learners and non-learners, demonstrating that a fixed mindset will limit you and a growth mindset can move you forward. The hand you are dealt is just the starting point. Passion, toil, and training can help you to soar. (She even writes persuasively about what she calls the
“CEO disease,” an affliction of business leaders who fail to have a growth mindset.)

My wife wasn’t thinking of my success when she gave me Dr.Dweck’s book. She was thinking of the success of one of our daughters who has learning differences. Her diagnosis took us on a journey of discovery to help her. First was the internal journey, concern for her but also the need to educate ourselves.

Next came action. We found a school in Vancouver, Canada, that specializes in learning differences like hers. We spent five years of our lives splitting time and family between Vancouver and Seattle in order to augment her regular schooling while keeping Zain’s care consistent in Seattle.

All of this meant separation at many levels: husband and wife; father and daughters; mother and son. We were maintaining two lives in two countries. Anu drove thousands of miles between Seattle and Vancouver in rain, snow, and darkness, and so did I on alternate weekends for five years. It was a trying time, but Anu and the girls made some exceptional friends in Canada.

As a family, we learned together that these predicaments were universal. Families from California, Australia, Palestine, and New Zealand converged on the Vancouver school with issues and challenges. I discovered that recognition of these universal predicaments leads to universal empathy—empathy for and among children, adults, parents, and teachers. Empathy, we learned, was indivisible and was a universal value.

And we learned that empathy is essential to deal with problems everywhere, whether at Microsoft or at home; here in the United States or globally.

That is also a mindset, a culture. As I continued my speech at the global sales conference, the empathy I felt for my kids and the empathy I felt for the people listening in that audience were on my mind and in my emotions.

Extracted with permission.

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