Hit Refresh … a manifesto for rethinking how we do business, and embrace technology, by Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella

November 20, 2017

Hit Refresh is about individual change, about the transformation happening inside of Microsoft and the technology that will soon impact all of our lives—the arrival of the most exciting and disruptive wave of technology humankind has experienced: artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and quantum computing. It’s about how people, organizations and societies can and must transform and “hit refresh” in their persistent quest for new energy, new ideas and continued relevance and renewal.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella tells the inside story of the company’s continuing transformation, tracing his own personal journey from a childhood in India to leading some of the most significant technological changes in the digital era.

Nadella explores a fascinating childhood before immigrating to the U.S. and how he learned to lead along the way. He then shares his meditations as a sitting CEO—one who is mostly unknown following the brainy Bill Gates and energetic Steve Ballmer. He tells the inside story of how a company rediscovered its soul—transforming everything from culture to their fiercely competitive landscape and industry partnerships.

“At the core, Hit Refresh is about us humans and the unique quality we call empathy, which will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before.”

As much a humanist as engineer and executive, Nadella concludes with his vision for the coming wave of technology and by exploring the potential impact to society and delivering call to action for world leaders.

“Ideas excite me,” Nadella explains. “Empathy grounds and centers me.” Hit Refresh is a set of reflections, meditations, and recommendations presented as algorithms from a principled, deliberative leader searching for improvement—for himself, for a storied company, and for society.

Extract from blog by Satya Nadella, on writing his book:

About two years ago I set out to tell the story of Microsoft’s quest to rediscover its soul and imagine a better future for everyone. Today, the first copies of the book arrived — neatly boxed and orderly. I laughed to myself because the process to get to this perfectly packed box was messy at times, and the story itself was not always orderly. In fact, that was half the fun, and it’s why I wanted to write about it in the midst of experiencing it.

Here’s how I describe the impetus for “Hit Refresh”:

“The most compelling argument was to write for my colleagues—Microsoft’s employees—and for our millions of customers and partners. After all, on that cold February day in 2014 when Microsoft’s board of directors announced that I would become CEO, I put the company’s culture at the top of our agenda. I said that we needed to rediscover the soul of Microsoft, our reason for being. I have come to understand that my primary job is to curate our culture so that one hundred thousand inspired minds—Microsoft’s employees—can better shape our future. Books are so often written by leaders looking back on their tenures, not while they’re in the fog of war. What if we could share the journey together, the meditations of a sitting CEO in the midst of a massive transformation?”

“Hit Refresh” isn’t a victory lap or a how-to manual. That would be premature. It’s a set of reflections, ideas and principles on transformation. It explores the renaissance of a storied company and the implications of the coming wave of technology — artificial intelligence, mixed reality and quantum computing — which will soon disrupt the status quo impacting our lives, communities and economies. It’s also a set of questions for anybody searching for improvement — for themselves as leaders, for their institutions and for society.

In December 2015, on a cold, drizzly day in Redmond, Washington, my co-authors and I gathered in my office for one of our working sessions. We had sketched out some ideas over the previous months, and now it was time to get serious. We sat around a coffee table piled with books, articles, transcripts and the like. In this early meeting, we made two decisions that shaped the project.

The first, a title. When you “hit refresh” in your web browser by clicking the little arrow, or hitting “function+F5,” it updates. It doesn’t wipe everything away and start new, as Bill Gates writes in his Foreword for the book — it actually keeps some things and replaces others. Hitting refresh is required for any person and organization looking to make a sustained impact over a long period of time from athletes, leaders and artists to cities, corporations and societies. Some people and organizations have one major hit refresh moment and others hit refresh often. We believed hit refresh was the perfect metaphor for all three storylines of the book — my personal journey so far, the company’s ongoing transformation, and the coming wave of technological and economic change.

Secondly, we arrived at the answer to an important question I had been mulling over — what do we hope a reader will take away from all of this at the end? The answer: the power of taking everyday action driven by empathy. My hope is that “Hit Refresh” inspires people to discover more empathy in their own lives. It’s a quality my wife, Anu, helped me begin to learn when our son was born with severe disabilities 21 years ago. It’s a quality that shapes our mission of empowerment at Microsoft and our quest to meet unmet and unarticulated needs of customers. And it’s the quality that helps us as a society move forward in creating new opportunity for all.

It’s been an incredible learning opportunity to work on this project. My hope is that it’ll start important conversations and spark new ideas, and that others will share their own hit refresh moments.

Extract from Wired Magazine’s review of the book:

Satya Nadella is only three and a half years into his tenure as the CEO of Microsoft and he has already written a book about his experiences.

As he acknowledges in the book, it’s an odd time to write about running the tech giant. Nadella, getting out in front of the “why” question, says he wanted to write from the middle of the “fog of war”—the battle to rescue Microsoft from a slow fade into the background of the tech landscape. And there’s plenty of material here. In stepping out of the long shadow of former Microsoft leaders Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Nadella has already accomplished what seemed impossible, increasing Microsoft’s market cap by $250 billion since taking control. As Fast Company recently pointed out, this adds up to “more value growth over that time than Uber and Airbnb, Netflix and Spotify, Snapchat and WeWork” combined.

The timing of the book’s arrival from Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, is even less peculiar when you also consider that one of Nadella’s central missions is to recreate Microsoft’s culture and image in the eyes of its employees, business partners, customers, investors, and, finally, the world. In Hit Refresh, the chief executive details the ways he seems to have made formerly disillusioned and perhaps embarrassed Microsoft employees proud of their work and employer again, partly by refocusing their sights on where the company was going, and why, rather than where it had fallen behind. He describes his pioneering approach to partnering with “frenemy” corporations.

The book itself is another way that Nadella is taking control of the Microsoft story, and the results are mixed.

For the average reader, Hit Refresh will be most compelling in the more personal sections, where Nadella describes his early life in India; the influence of his mother, a Sanskrit scholar; and his arrival in the US, where he attended University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee to complete his Master’s degree in engineering, and, with other Indian students, gave up smoking rather than stand outside during the shockingly cold winters. Nadella describes his awkward first interview at Microsoft, which he joined in 1992, when he was 25 years old. He eventually became head of the company’s cloud and enterprise group, and was credited for moving Microsoft to the cloud when he was tapped as CEO.

It’s intriguing to learn of the methods Nadella used as CEO to disrupt culture in the company, to change the style of communication from one that was top-down and rigid to one that was empathetic and collaborative. For instance, he recounts the time he used a company-wide spat over milk routinely being left to spoil out on the counter to drive home—with some levity—his belief in the “growth mindset,” and personal empowerment, as a way to solve problems, rather than complain about them.

In another instance, he recalls an early meeting with his senior leadership team in which he brought in sports psychologist Michael Gervais, who had worked with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, to meet with Microsoft’s executives and bring their self-awareness to a deeper level. During that meeting, held on soft couches arranged in a circle, the managers opened up about their personal passions and philosophy. Nadella writes:

“We were asked to reflect on who we are, both in our home lives and at work. How do we connect our work persona with our life persona? People talked about spirituality, their Catholic roots, their study of Confucian teachings. They shared their struggles as parents and their unending dedication to making products that people love to use for work and entertainment. As I listened to them, I realized that in all my years at Microsoft this was the first time I’d heard my colleagues talk about themselves, not exclusively about business matters. Looking around the room, I even saw a few teary eyes.”

Unfortunately, the strange narrative arc of Hit Refresh means we soon lose these vivid, ground-level reports from inside Microsoft. The book moves from being a personal story, to a management how-to, to a series of long sections in which Nadella reflects on the future of digital rights and freedoms, artificial intelligence and augmented reality, quantum computing, and what he thinks countries will need to do to be included in the next wave of tech-enabled globalization (one that companies like Microsoft hope to lead, naturally). Those chapters read more like keynote speeches—albeit thoughtful, insightful speeches that include literary references and lovely summaries of various economic and philosophic theories.

The “refresh” in the title is meant to refer to the “refreshing” of a web page, which Nadella admits is a quaint notion in today’s web culture. It’s also his way of signalling his respect for the Microsoft that came before him, one that, by the time he took over, had turned into a collection of fiefdoms where secrecy ruled and hostility ran high between competing Microsoft businesses.

The empathetic spirit he begins to emphasize as CEO, as a way to bring the workforce together, is a value he also connects to Microsoft’s ethos more broadly: he argues that the company exists to help democratize the tremendous power of today’s computational abilities, the way Gates and co-founder Paul Allen democratized access to computers period. Nadella makes the case for the company becoming a ubiquitous tool in the lives of its users, who will soon be living in a world of ubiquitous intelligence. What end users will do with those tools—build companies, schools, or cure cancer—is where each of Microsoft’s 100,000-plus employees is supposed to find meaning. He links the company’s purchase of LinkedIn to democratizing employment opportunities, and emphasizes the value of Minecraft in classrooms, in his nod to that unexpected acquisition.

Nadella claims in the book that he has seen a “tangible shift” in Microsoft culture, though he considers the job a work in progress. Whether insiders will challenge this depiction remains to be seen, but Nadella’s personal dedication to seeing his work through an existential lens is convincing, most especially when he talks about his son, Zain, who was born with severe disabilities. He credits his experiences raising Zain, and his wife’s approach to parenting, with teaching him the meaning of—and need for—empathy. He writes:

During one ICU visit, after I took on my new role as CEO, I looked around Zain’s room, filled with the soft buzzing and beeping of medical technology, and saw things differently. I noticed just how many of the devices run on Windows and how they were increasingly connected to the cloud, that network of massive data storage and computational power that is now a fundamental part of the technology applications we take for granted today. It was a stark reminder that our work at Microsoft transcended business, that it made life possible for a fragile young boy.

The experience helps him see Microsoft’s mission in a new light, and in the process convinces the reader.

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