Ask what your company can do for you, says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella thinks his company should work for its employees.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella thinks his company should work for its employees.
Image: Reuters/Saumya Khandelwal
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Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has a thought exercise that could help you resolve one of life’s Big Questions. Ask yourself this: How can my company work for me?

Sure, the idea invokes a reflexive sneer. It sounds like selfie-generation hubris taken to the nth degree, a reversal of John F. Kennedy’s famous plea for selfless devotion to the good of the whole. But Nadella’s suggestion, which he shared as a guest on a recent episode of the podcast Finding Mastery, makes sense with a bit of context.

The tech leader made the comment when he was asked to define “mastery,” by the show’s host, Michael Gervais, a psychologist who coaches elite athletes, artists, and CEOs. “For me,” Nadella said, “it comes down to being in touch, deeply in touch, with what gives you purpose.”

He continued:

“One of the things that I say a lot is, ‘What if you took what you do at Microsoft and flipped it? Hey, I don’t work at Microsoft, Microsoft works for me.’ And that is because you are a someone who has a particular passion, a particular personal philosophy, and you are able to, in fact, turn what is considered work into an instrument of you realizing the deeper meaning in pursuing your personal philosophy, or passion.

To me, mastery is that—that ability to lead a more purposeful life, and then take all of life and turn it into that platform. Because I think that’s all we have, so we may as well make use of it.”

Nadella has spent the last several months appearing at events and on podcasts like this one talking about his book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone (2017), which is part memoir, part manifesto about Microsoft’s future. Since taking over as CEO four years ago, he says he has worked to instill a “growth mindset” as the default approach to work and innovation at Microsoft. At an organizational level, too, he feels the company must be a platform for a higher calling: the democratization of computational power.

As the father of a young man with severe cerebral palsy, Nadella also is following his own advice, making Microsoft work for him on a personal level in at least one way: Last week, the company announced a new $25 million fund, AI for Accessibility, which will support developers and inventors “taking an AI-first approach focused on creating solutions that will create new opportunities and assist people with disabilities with work, life and human connections.”

Nadella writes in Hit Refresh that it was while sitting one night in a hospital intensive-care unit, noticing the machinery around his struggling son, that he truly realized the connection between the products Microsoft makes and their end purposes—a connection, he says, that “transcended business.”

Although the concept of somehow grafting your purpose onto your job is hardly revolutionary, Nadella’s chiastic framing of the idea is particularly effective. The only preliminary requirement is that you spend some time thinking about the “you” that you want your firm to be working for. Who is that most intense, other-focused version of yourself? And can you put her in charge?