Career Insight: 5 Leadership Truths from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

by Diana Drake

During the first Future of Work Conference this spring, Wharton People Analytics explored themes that are transforming the workplace. Adam Grant, Wharton organizational psychologist and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics, introduced the virtual day of learning.

“What the data have been telling us for the past two years is that work is changing dramatically, and we don’t know enough. So why not broaden our focus and try to figure out how do we make the future of work better? And what are the changes that we’ve seen during the pandemic that we should keep and which ones should we throw out? And what new ideas should we be exploring and testing? If we can’t reinvent work now, I don’t know when we’re going to do it.”

To open the conference, Professor Grant sat down with Satya Nadella, Chairman and CEO of Microsoft. According to Glassdoor (where former employees anonymously review companies), Nadella is the most beloved CEO on Earth.

Here are 5 insights Nadella shared throughout their discussion that illustrate leadership qualities within the changing workplace.

1. “Well-being is one of the most important pieces of productivity.” Now more than ever (emerging from the pandemic), leaders need to learn good management practices that prioritize not just collaboration, output metrics and learning, but also employees’ personal well-being. For example, setting the expectation that employees don’t have to answer an email sent by the CEO over the weekend.

2. “Everybody is waking up and saying leadership and management and technological excellence go together.” Tech companies used to believe that connection was all about the technology and that management style didn’t matter. That is changing in a big way. Microsoft leaders are asked to build deep care into their managerial capability by following the “Model Coach Care” mindset, which has received a lot of attention. The company wants to see its leaders personally practicing this mindset by becoming active role models and coaching their employees to be the same to those around them, and by showing that they really care about employees’ personal growth.

3. Leaders must learn to show humility and vulnerability. “The psychological safety that you create around you, especially the more senior you are, becomes super important…One technique of that is to share your own fallibility because that gives confidence to others.

4. A key to strong leadership is “figuring out the lived experiences of the people on your team.” The reality is, all of us come from different places, have different histories and our everyday experiences are different. The impact of what’s happening broadly in the world of any employee cannot be separated by how the employee feels at work. When someone shows up and their community is being impacted, good leaders must recognize it.

5. “Great teams are important, but great teaming is the currency…a lifelong learner is someone who genuinely believes that he can learn something from every single person he interacts with.” Leaders need to assess their own ability to learn from others. “I always think about the daily routine, the number of people I meet and how I was able to explore new things because of the people and what I learned from them.”

Watch the Wharton Future of Work Conference here.

Conversation Starters

Why does Adam Grant believe that now is a great time to be thinking about the future of work?

What is people analytics and why is it so important to your future life as an employee?

Which Satya Nadella leadership lesson resonates most with you and why?

8 comments on “Career Insight: 5 Leadership Truths from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

  1. Attention, care, and cooperation. These were just some of the key ingredients written in Satya’s recipe on leadership qualities within the changing workplace. With technology, money, and society developing to fit new conditions, sometimes all we need is a genuine voice for the people, and an inspiration to the various business leaders adjusting to the shifting world.

    Being in the midst of a pandemic that has lasted for two years, I believe that it is more important now than ever to make changes to the workplace as the world has been making even more drastic changes to everybody’s personal lives.

    Satya mentioned several key points that resonated with me, but what instantly stood out was the emphasis on care towards well-being and livid experiences. Personally, I strongly believe that the environment that surrounds us when we work is, as stated in the article, crucial towards productivity. A working environment includes the people you work with, the rules in which you work under, and much more. But, finding a fitting environment for your personal life and preferences is a key part to motivate you to work harder, and have a good time doing so in such difficult circumstances. With Covid related complications and the general obstacles in life occurring, personal issues that may be spontaneous could arise. Thus, I completely agree that rules such as not being obligated to “answer an email sent by the CEO over the weekend” is great to implement for the respect and consideration of each and every employee. Essentially, even though employees should be held up to expectations and rules when joining a company, certain less important ones that may take a toll on urgent situations may not be 100% necessary to have.

    Furthermore, being caring and thoughtful enough to “[figure] out the lived experiences of the people on [a] team” is another excellent way to lead people. With the ever changing circumstances, unexpected issues that an employee may face but are hesitant to speak on may be apparent. This is why identifying if those circumstances exist not only helps with work allocation and the organization of the workplace, but also individual mental health, which is a rising issue in the pandemic. It is also helpful to know about previous traumas, or issues that they faced or have been facing in order to be mindful of their situation. As a high school student that is a part of many non profit organizations, family related issues or even a load of school assignments would hinder my ability to complete certain tasks, but sometimes it is difficult to communicate these issues. Personally, I even know a handful of students that have trouble completing school work due to personal issues, but are scared to reach out to a teacher or guidance counselor due to mistrust or possibly even embarrassment. Even myself, I was once too nervous to inform my ninth grade gym teacher about a sprained ankle on conditioning day, leading me to run laps in pain and getting a lower mark than I should have!

    As times are changing, those who are leading the individuals that are working hard must understand that their employees each have their own distinct experiences and preferences, especially in difficult times. Essentially, providing the feeling of the workplace not being a burden or competition, but rather a family, benefits everyone. When somebody’s feelings are validated and recognized when needing to complete work, it drastically changes their dedication towards the job. Support leads to success.

    As follows, I would like to add to Satya’s statement that vulnerability is extremely powerful in growth and motivation, because “the greatest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one.” This quote, by Elbert Hubbard has been a personal motivating factor to me for years, but is also so important to remember when leading a workplace. When employees look up to a leader, they sometimes view them as seemingly perfect, making them hesitant on taking risks, or possibly making a mistake. This mindset is faulty when it comes to innovative tasks or simply just enjoying the work you do. When the leader is able to show their own inherent fallibility, because everybody has it, it will create a sense of safety for others to accept, learn, and grow from their own mistakes. I think the best part about being a leader as a student myself, whether in group projects or in student-led organizations, is the fact that I can learn many things from everybody around me. Ultimately, being a role model, rather than a commander in a workplace, in my opinion, will be of great benefit when providing feedback, criticism, and developing a genuine relationship.

    Moreover, to add just a bit more to this truly accurate point, I believe that not only should leaders show and encourage their own fallibility/mistakes, other employees should as well. Because employees speak to each other on a daily basis, being able to spread the acceptance of making mistakes just allows for more amazing work done and innovation in the workplace.

    All in all, as a current student thinking about the career that I wish to pursue, my future life as an employee would play a big role in that conversation with myself. People analytics, and great leaders like Satya will be able to provide assurance to me and many others of my generation, and inspire those leading the workplace right now.

    Thank you to Knowledge @ Wharton and everybody who worked on this article for providing such priceless insight regarding such a crucial and less-spoken topic in the workplace. Satya definitely now has one more positive thought on his Glassdoor reviews!

  2. Satya Nadella’s leadership lesson -“well-being is one of the most important pieces of productivity”- resonates with me because it communicates a crucial change in leadership during the 21st century. Unlike in the past where workers were treated inhumanely and unfairly, this behavior is largely considered to be no longer appropriate. Satya Nadella’s words reflect how this positive development in workers rights makes it even more vital for leaders to support employee well-being. In our quickly changing world, leaders must understand that in order to be a righteous leader and also to maximize productivity, employees must be treated with respect and equality. Gone are the days of abusing employees with the excuse of profit maximization. New leaders must support and utilize these developments in employee well-being.

    • I agree fully with the fact that maintaining the well-being of employees should be a priority for management. But the subjective nature of such an issue is naturally a point of conflict among employees and management because they have different definitions based on their personal goals. What are “respect” and “equality” in the corporate world?

      Do they include only the basic human rights or do they entail free time during office hours for workers to lounge in a comfortable space and cool off? To me, labor unions come to mind. When dealing with subjects such as leadership in the workplace and talks of promoting equality come up, I could only think of unions. In short, unions exist to maintain some semblance of fairness in the office, preventing management from acting like tyrants. However, I also believe words like “respect” and “equality” fuel the unions and cause problems. Again, the definitions vary depending on what your priorities are, which can only cause further issues as the two groups battle over whose definition is “correct.” How could we prevent conflicts from breaking out between unions and management?

      “Respect” and “equality” may mean completely different things in the eyes of management than they do for workers. There may never be a day when workers and managers see eye-to-eye. Instead of locking in on slightly open-ended words such as “respect” and “equality,” perhaps fitting one’s business model into “teamwork” may be more helpful.

  3. I have a couple of more years before I hit the corporate working environment, but the five leadership truths that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shared completely resonate with me, even as a student (without a job!).

    I can definitely see these leadership dynamics as marks of success within my school’s walls in two distinct ways.

    First, in the classroom. The classes in which I have been most engaged and learned from happen to have been taught by teachers that embraced these five leadership truths in very similar ways.

    Some teachers are contextually aware of my well-being more than others. That can be as simple as recognizing that their homework and exams aren’t the only ones students have to contend with. It’s so intuitive, but when one teacher allows me to make arrangements for rescheduling an exam to avoid the pile-up of multiple tests and papers all on a single day or two, I’m able to absorb more and use the assessments to really learn, vs. get through a gauntlet of obligatory assignment due dates without the confidence of retention and learning.

    Regarding the lesson of management styles to include deep care through a coaching mindset, it is easy to see the parallel for the classroom too. In the school setting, I’ve benefited from a certain teacher who willingly spends free class periods or stays after school. For example, on a recent Friday afternoon he still wanted to meet with me – when he must have been tired from the long work week – since we weren’t able to find a mutual time during the week so far. And working with me without watching the clock until I fully understood the concepts for which I came to him for help. This extra time ultimately shows me that he really cares about my personal growth more than just getting through “yet another school year with kids.”

    Some teachers are know-it-alls. But some are confident enough to share when they were wrong or when they are at the end of their expertise on a subject. It’s those teachers where students feel completely safe sharing their own challenges and questions of things that might bring on shame from the “know-it-all” crew. Watching the Satya Nedell & Adam Grant interview from the Wharton Future at Work Conference was very informative to hear about the importance of psychological safety.

    It certainly is interesting to see the difference between teachers who don’t seem to pay attention to what the students in the classroom do outside of the building and those that actively ask and talk about various things going on in their life and ours. I love how Nadella recognizes that “the world of any employee cannot be separated by how the employee feels at work.”

    Finally, Nadella talks about how “teaming is the currency.” Sometimes you’ll get a teacher who is on a “journey” with the students throughout the year. This kind of relationship to students is quite different from a more authoritative style where the teacher is the final expert and students are lucky to be learning in the classroom.

    I said there’s a second way that these five leadership truths have connected the dots for me in high school. And that is as a leader of extracurricular activities. While club or committee members aren’t employees, and I’m not their boss, these five principles are wise approaches to help inspire, motivate and ultimately get everyone to work together for fruitful outcomes. As I recently helped organize an event at school, I can see when I was able to lean into any of these five specific styles when interacting with my peers to plan and host the event for our school, the outcomes were always positive. For everyone involved.

    No wonder there are super positive reviews on Glassdoor that tout things such as “New CEO Satya Nadella will Transform.”

    It would be great to meet or even work for him one day to see how these leadership truths actively play out in the office. After all, who wouldn’t want to work for the most beloved CEO on Earth?

  4. General Milley, the nation’s top military officer, once said that “leaders must be competent.” How do we measure competency? Competency is measured by individual capabilities such as comprehension and understanding, and it means you must have the skillset to accomplish a given task successfully. Arguably, a key trait embedded in competency is decisiveness because you must possess the necessary expertise to make any decision.

    Thence, changing the traits to decisiveness and humility is a healthy improvement. A leader should maintain a balance between the two character traits. As they are often people who make decisions that affect the workplace, they should have strong critical thinking skills and be able to make tough choices that lead to success. Humility is when the leader maintains an openness to other ideas proposed by the employees. In the end, though, as all should be aware, the leader is the one who makes the decisions. An additional show of humility is when the leader admits to their mistakes. In doing so, employees may deepen their respect for the management.

    In contrast, however, vulnerability does not fit in the model. By definition, the term means showing weakness to others, and, based on its meaning, that should not be a desirable character trait in leaders, as they are the role models who are followed. Humility can lead to openness, and that seems a smidge better (and more sufficient) than weakness. Similarly, being transparent about fallibility at an excessive rate should certainly not be sought after.

    Good leaders aren’t perfect. Obviously, a lot of leadership skills are nurtured from mistakes, or as others like to call it, “experience”. Future leaders should be aware that they most likely may not be the best manager or leader in the office at first. Instead of being discouraged, they should be inclined to learn and improve through their shortcomings. The best way to nurture great leaders is by teaching, followed by experience and learning from errors.

  5. Through my numerous experiences collaborating with others to reach a common goal, I can attest to the value of developing a relationship with my peers that goes beyond just completing a task. I have been fortunate to witness countless memorable and successful moments that have been made possible by taking the time to hold meaningful interactions. Satya Nadella’s insight will only continue to increase in importance as businesses and individuals around the world continue to work together to develop a post-pandemic workplace that fosters elements of pre-pandemic normalcy and combines them with flexibility, well-being, and greater acceptance of individuals’ differences.

    I want to highlight my experience from earlier this year when I received the opportunity to tutor a student taking French. One of the difficulties my tutoree was experiencing was remembering the conjugations for a verb which is commonly used in French. It is the verb être which means “to be”. When learning French, I faced a similar difficulty with the verb avoir which means “to have”. I remembered my experience and the struggles I had in learning avoir. Through hard work and perseverance, I eventually mastered the conjugations. I told my tutoree my experience and encouraged her to do the same. By putting myself in her shoes, I realized the difficulty she was facing and I was able to better help her learn the conjugations.

    • Empathy! Or should we say Empathie? These types of interactions will prepare you well for the workplace of the future.

  6. “Well-being is one of the most important pieces of productivity.” Now more than ever (emerging from the pandemic), leaders need to learn good management practices that prioritize not just collaboration, output metrics and learning, but also employees’ personal well-being. For example, setting the expectation that employees don’t have to answer an email sent by the CEO over the weekend.

    I can truly resonate with this quote by Mr. Nadella. As I embarked on the journey of starting my own coffee shop at school, I initially believed that everything would run smoothly, especially with the involvement of some of our most reliable students. However, within the first two weeks, we were confronted with an unexpectedly high number of complaints and noticeable inefficiencies. This compelled me to reflect deeply.

    Seeking guidance from teachers and engaging in one-on-one meetings with my team, I soon realized that the root cause lay in my failure to prioritize the well-being of each individual involved. To address this, I implemented a weekly feedback form for every member of the coffee shop. This allowed me to gain insights into their happiness at work and identify potential problems the shop might encounter. The results were remarkable. Not only did customer satisfaction increase, but the productivity of team members soared as well.
    Had I come across this article earlier, I believe it would have significantly reduced the external costs incurred and encouraged more customers who initially visited only once to return for a second visit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *