Plenty of CEOs pay lip service to the corporate line that it’s all about partnering with rivals and creating ecosystems these days, but you get a clear sense that Satya Nadella is not one of them.
The Microsoft CEO has an authenticity about him that few can match, at least if his performance at the launch of his new book is anything to go by.
Hit Refresh tells the story of Microsoft’s transformation from being a Windows company to one that is focusing on a range of emerging technologies.
In his foreword to the book, Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates describes Nadella as “humble, forward-looking and pragmatic” and a leader who is “part of a constant conversation, reaching out to customers, top researchers and executives”.
Speaking at Lord's Cricket Ground, Nadella reached out the hand of friendship to telcos when asked by European Communications to give his views on a sector that, in Europe at least, believes it has lost up to €100 million in earnings each day to digital “disruptors”.
“I have been very clear about our business model – we’re not trying to become a telecommunications company, or a drug company or an automobile company. We want to partner with them.” the CEO said.
“The value add, whether it’s on the telecoms network or in healthcare, is increasingly going to be digital or software,” he went on.
“Their value-add services may be different to ours but they are thinking of themselves as platform companies and we need to work with them.”
If we leave aside Microsoft’s ill-timed move into smartphones, the main thrust of the US company’s work with telcos to date has been in the enterprise space.
But Nadella has his eyes on three new technologies that he thinks will be transformational for both consumers and businesses: artificial intelligence, mixed reality and quantum computing.
In particular, he hopes they will help to answer a fundamental question at the heart of his Microsoft: how to empower more people and organisations to solve the most pressing problems in the world?
The good news for telcos, at least in theory, is that Nadella is a firm believer in partnerships and ecosystems.
“Our long-term interests are better served by serving our customers’ long-term interests [and] in many cases this requires us to work with the competition,” he said.
So why does Nadella appear to me more believable that some of his peers in this regard?
It’s partly due to his business philosophy and how he has looked to change the way Microsoft works.
In particular, Nadella has focused on developing a learning culture at the California-based firm and on rediscovering its core purpose.
“We struggled with culture at Microsoft,” he admitted, and “I was a bit unclear what our purpose was.”
On changing the former, he said: “You can’t be a know-it-all, you should be a learn-it-all if you want continuous improvement.”
This inherent “vulnerability” makes you better, he believes.
It also opens doors to work more collaboratively with partners.
In terms of purpose, Nadella went back to the beginning of his 25-year career at the firm he now leads.
“When I joined Microsoft in 1992 we talked about putting a PC in every home as our mission… it was tangible, clear, succinct, very empowering.”
But when the company had largely achieved this aim in the late 1990s, at least in the developed world, Nadella suggests Microsoft lost its way.
On becoming CEO in 2014, he went back to the first product the company created – a BASIC interpreter for the Altair 8800.
“Right there is everything about who we are which is to create technology to let others create technology,” Nadella said.
“I wanted us to get back to those roots.”
With telcos amid something of an existential crisis themselves about what they are supposed to be – low-cost connectivity providers, aggregators of content and services, or new technology innovators to name just three options being discussed – following Nadella’s lead could yield some key answers.
But even if they don’t want to look back, Microsoft’s CEO is certainly keen to work with them on delivering the future.