Think you are smart? Forget it, that’s the last thing one top global CEO would want you to be!

“It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.”

Henry David Thoreau

What are the roots of commercial success in our globally connected era of constant change, technology disruption and the rapidly emerging, digitally proficient employee? Passion, competence, strategic decision making, a never say die attitude, or perhaps communications expertise? What would the CEO of one of the largest and most successful companies on the planet say in response to such a question? He would actually state none of these, important in themselves though they are. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft attributes the company’s dramatic rise in fortune to transitioning his people’s mindset from striving to be the smartest guy in the room, a ‘know it all’ to becoming a ‘learn it all.’

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Getting people to come to terms with the fact they are not yet the real deal must have been hard for many! However, once you strip away a defence minded attitude, you create the opportunity to break down individual prejudice, dismantle divisional silos and build a thriving hotbed for innovation. Moving from a ‘fixed mindset’ where decisions are ones that reinforce the tendency to continue doing what has always been done, to a ‘growth mindset’ which actively seeks to challenge the status quo, promotes the desire to experience the fear of the unknown and to explore unchartered territory. 

This is precisely what Nadella has culturally engineered at Microsoft; an outlook which strives for new ideas and which seeks the alternative perspective, one which replaces arrogance (‘hey, look at me, I am one smart cookie’) with humility (‘wow, I know I’m pretty good at what I do but there’s so much I don’t know and much more I need to learn’).

‘You cannot think yourself into a new way of acting, you must act yourself into a new way of thinking.’ Nadella recognised that his role of CEO was one of being a cultural architect, embedding empowerment through connecting individual passion with corporate purpose (‘democratising technology to make peoples’ lives better and more productive’) and enabling the environment which encouraged new ideas and the collaborative skills to translate these into reality. What he has created in effect is a new population of creatively minded leaders, people who are not afraid to take initiative, to step outside their comfort zone, to try something new, even to fail, but to also learn and progress! One of my favourite axioms is that ‘you cannot think yourself into a new way of acting, you must act yourself into a new way of thinking.’ In short, just do it and try! Many times I have experienced executive teams who are imprisoned in a straight jacket of paralysis, fearful to explore, haunted by the prospect of failure.

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Nadella, has turned this on its head, as he stated in his book ‘Hit Refresh’*, leadership at Microsoft has three founding principles: “The first is to bring clarity to those you work with. Leaders take internal and external noise and synthesize a message from it, recognizing the true signal within a lot of noise. I don’t want to hear that someone is the smartest person in the room. Second, leaders generate energy, not only on their own teams but across the company. Third, and finally, they find a way to deliver success, to make things happen. This means driving innovations that people love and are inspired to work on; finding balance between long-term success and short-term wins; and being boundary-less and globally minded in seeking solutions.” Nadella also lays much store to empathy, understanding the emotions that drive collaborative action and describes a framework which creates a powerfully binding virtuous circle, the three Cs  - Creativity, Capability and Culture - which unite the product or service you have created, the capability you need to deliver it and the culture that cements all three into a mutually inclusive, unifying bond. What Nadella has constructed is a collective capability with the potential to look at the world around us and see what others do not see, a capability with the power to defy conventional wisdom creating breakthrough initiatives that will make a huge difference in the world! Artificial Intelligence, Mixed Reality Computing and Cloud Software are the centre of the Strategic focus! An insight into Satya Nadella’s leadership philosophy may be glimpsed through a short YouTube video here. Listen to how he speaks of creating meaning at work, dismantling obstacles to innovation, focusing on talent, perseverance, innovation and creating a platform to change our world.


No wonder, Microsoft is powering ahead, ironically through embedding a mindset that centres upon admitting what you don’t know as opposed to striving to impress others with what you do know! Surely, a lesson for many!

‘Hit Refresh’ by Satya Nadella, one of the best business books of 2018!


Haydn Parry is founder of Hunter Strategic Solutions and Service Leadership Director at the Education and Training Consultancy, HPT5.