When he was 24 years old, Microsoft poached Satya Nadella from Sun Microsystems. He has since been described as calm and quiet but also very decisive and extremely intentional. Satya Nadella was not an obvious pick for the CEO position at Microsoft after the end of Steve Ballmer’s era in 2013. A lot of tech media outlets were highlighting former Ford CEO, Allan Mullaly, as a possible hire for the position because Microsoft was doing terribly and needed a person with a different perspective, preferably an outsider, to bring the tech giant back to life.

The early beginnings of Microsoft

For the first decade of the 21st Century, Microsoft was the biggest tech company. It capped at about $600 billion within that period. For the whole of that decade, it was undisputedly most valuable company in the world. In 2010, it was toppled by Apple after the Steve Jobs revolution had taken shape with the iPhone. Since that period, Microsoft’s market cap has stablilised for several years. This is partly because it also capped at the $600 billion mark, partly due to the aggressive buying back of shares during that period.

The company had gotten stuck under Steve Ballmer’s era. All the company’s new products under Ballmer were not earning as much revenue as Windows and Office. Ballmer’s attempt at destroying Google using Bing had failed as Google grew in bounds. Moreover, the Nokia acquisition and the launch of Lumia mobile phones only served to show how late Microsoft was in the consumer mobile phone business. This was brought into focus especially with the struggling Windows Phone OS. Zune and Kin were not doing any better. Suffice to say, the company was nowhere near its glorious days.

The Satya Nadella era

Against predictions by analysts, Microsoft decided to appoint an insider for the CEO position once more. As a 24-year veteran at the time, Satya Nadella took over the company in February 2014. In his first speech to shareholders, he did not mention Windows or Office. No one took notice at first. What he did mention was a “cloud-first, mobile-first” approach

Satya had grown in the company slowly over a 24-year period to become a senior executive. Despite the existing culture during much of Bill Gates’ and Steve Ballmer’s era, Satya had known what to pick from his predecessors and what to leave. He came in with fire to transform the company, to improve on the vision, and to enhance intelligence and creativity. His style of leadership was different from Bill Gates who was extremely aggressive, and Ballmer who built on that aggressiveness with more competitiveness. The new CEO decided against carrying on with a culture that was clearly failing. Instead, he decided to follow transformational leadership by idealizing influence, inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation.

Satya wanted to focus more on helping people to learn, collaborate through teamwork, be creative and stimulate intellectuality. Above all, he wanted the whole company to be results-oriented.

8 years since Nadella took over (when the company’s shares were trading between $25 and $40), Microsoft’s shares are now trading at $245.37, and the company’s market cap has grown to $1.844 trillion. In a short time, Satya Nadella has managed to bring Microsoft back from devastating uncertainty to a place of hope. People are starting to love Microsoft again, a love that has not been expressed ever since Bill Gates stepped down from the CEO role at the company.

Desktop software revolution 

At the height of the Bill Gates era, desktop software was the revolution. Bill’s mission to ensure that every home in the US had a personal computer that would be running Windows OS had been beyond successful. In fact, Microsoft owned 99% of that market. During the era of Steve Ballmer who took over from Gates, the market began to shift the desktop software-first mentality. It is during those 10 years when Microsoft was the most valuable company in the world that innovation peaked but Microsoft didn’t get in on the game early enough.

From desktop software, the tech revolution was now focusing on social media networks, search engines, mobile devices, and cloud computing. In a way, Microsoft was late in all these areas, except for cloud computing. They were not in mobile devices and only attempted a dive into the market later on leading to a $7 billion loss in the Nokia acquisition. Ballmer launched Bing in 2009 when Google had already established a name in the game and was innovating in every sense.

The company didn’t own any social networks. However, it was not too late in cloud computing. OneDrive launched in 2007 – early enough to make a good run in cloud wars. Dropbox had just launched a year earlier. At the time, this was a startup that didn’t have the financial muscle to outfight Microsoft. Google drive came 5 years later, in 2012, when OneDrive had made many important steps.

How did Satya Nadella Reinvent Microsoft?

1. Cloud computing

In every sense, Satya Nadella’s “cloud-first, mobile-first” approach only worked to favor the most promising part of the business where Microsoft had gotten in early enough. Despite very aggressive competition from Apple’s OS X, Microsoft’s Windows still controls the desktop OS market share worldwide in both enterprise and personal computing. Microsoft has leveraged this 78% market share to make OneDrive and Azure as popular as possible. As of today, Windows 10 has taken over the commercial devices market share at 52%, tipping the scales against Windows 7 at 36%. In each of that Windows 10 installation is a OneDrive folder, automatically built into the software.

It is no surprise that the company’s target to surpass $20 billion in revenue came to pass. In fact, in 2022, they reported $198 billion in revenue. They are the biggest company in cloud computing and they are pulling in revenues that are much bigger than Amazon, Salesforce, IBM, Oracle, Google, and SAP. It’s helpful to note that none of these competing companies are doing badly either. It’s fair to say that Satya Nadella is the undisputed CEO of the cloud wars as it stands. Moreover, with the rate that Microsoft is moving at, it will be very difficult for its closest competitors in this niche (Amazon and Salesforce) to get anywhere close.

Upon taking over Microsoft, Nadella embarked on the task of building data centers around the world that would support the cloud computing business. He laid every foundation early, and it is now paying off quite well.

2. Microsoft subscriptions

Since the company launched in 1975 under Bill Gates and the late Paul Allen, Microsoft’s revenues relied on one-time payments from permanent licenses for Windows and later for Office. The licenses were quite pricey. Even so, since the company didn’t have any worthy competitors, it still dominated that market. This business model worked for decades.

By 2014 when Satya came in, he had seen that it was important to find a recurring revenue channel. Microsoft 365 was launched to offer an intelligent subscription solution that would include Microsoft Office software, Windows, OneDrive, and Enterprise Mobility and Security. This package is now popular among companies and individuals alike. Office 365 revenues alone are quite staggering and growing by huge percentage points every year. The company has figured out how to get recurring customer revenue without having to sell traditional one-time licenses.

3. Acquiring LinkedIn

It is true that Microsoft was not in any social network business for a long time. However, the kind of financial reserves that the company has meant that it can buy off a lot of things if it really wants to. In 2016, Satya Nadella sanctioned a $26 billion acquisition of the world’s biggest professional social network putting Microsoft firmly in the social media business.

Microsoft bought LinkedIn with its entire suite of numerous platforms including Slideshare, Lynda, Glint, among others. Satya positioned Microsoft at the center of the game when it comes to hiring for business and connecting professionals. This didn’t look like a big move at the time and companies like Google had mulled over buying LinkedIn before Microsoft came and swept the deal off under the radar.

Today LinkedIn has 450 million monthly users who display their professional and company data on the platform, and use this very platform to hire the best talent around the world. This is data that Microsoft will use to shape how Microsoft’s biggest products are adopted and integrated into the enterprise, business, and personal computing markets. The customer data potential is huge, and Microsoft is firmly in charge of it. Additionally, LinkedIn revenue from advertising contributed more than $1 billion to Microsoft’s total revenue in the past financial year.

4. Letting go of company mistakes

Recognizing that Microsoft had made some mistakes in strategy, as well as acquisitions, was important for Satya Nadella’s progress. Beyond recognising this, Nadella was able to learn from these mistakes and tweak his approach later on. Bing had failed to surpass Google in the search engine wars, so Satya reduced the focus on Bing. He also sanctioned the sale of Bing’s mapping data assets to Uber.

Nokia was a $7-billion-dollar acquisition mistake by Microsoft. Satya took over Microsoft in 2014 while the deal was in the works, and it took months to finalise the deal. He ran with that acquisition and spent two years trying to make Nokia work by launching the Windows Phone OS and empowering as many developers as possible to develop mobile apps for the Lumia line of phones. Microsoft Lumia was not turning out quite as expected. Eventually, in 2016, Satya stopped trying to make that ill-advised Nokia acquisition work and sold the business to HMD Global for only $350 million. This was a huge loss from the billions of dollars spent on the company three years earlier.

5. Taking internal action

Taking over a mammoth of a company with thousands of employees includes taking over the behavioural mess, organizational structures, infighting, and unhealthy competition between employees.

These were real issues at Microsoft, and these issues showed in the decision-making of the company and eventually affected how the company’s customers viewed them over time. Satya had to ensure these issues were addressed.

His first order of business was to shred to pieces all the organizational structures and product-group silos that had stifled creativity and growth. The growth of a company really depends a lot on how fast the product and innovation teams can get their ideas to the CEO.

At Microsoft, this would take quite long at the time because manager X had to get to manager Y who would then get it to manager Z. By the time the CEO gets to see anyone’s idea, time would have already been poorly spent. This is time within which companies like Apple and Google would have launched a new product or made serious developments to their businesses.

These organizational structures were long and pointless and Satya figured they had to go. Microsoft needed to function like a startup again; a really big startup.

6. Reimagining and reshaping

There is a major shift in what the digital revolution is looking like around the world. Satya Nadella knew this too well. Microsoft could no longer rely on income from desktop software and permanent licenses. That mindset needed to go. After all, the world has moved from desktop to mobile and from expensive permanent licenses to more affordable subscriptions.

The company’s CEO is a big believer in enterprise cloud, digital transformation, and artificial intelligence (AI). He has repositioned the company to focus on the more recent opportunities coming up in AI and cloud computing. In fact, he has done this quite well, as artificial intelligence continues to grow and be informed by data that the company has in plenty. Under his leadership, Microsoft is now leading in the cloud computing business. As a case in point, LinkedIn plus Dynamics 365 now gives you AI capabilities. Microsoft is firmly positioned to control artificial intelligence in the future.

The company needed to unlearn some things and reimagine what the future of work looked like. Their perception needed to be reshaped. Employees at Microsoft no longer focus on how many Windows and Office licenses they need to sell, but on how close it is to the goal of controlling AI. They’re also aiming towards growing the subscriptions business, doubling cloud computing revenue and influencing the future of hiring. Upcoming opportunities in the market indicate that this is where Microsoft should go and Satya has put the company firmly at the forefront.

7. Developing a sense of purpose

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg is a huge believer in the concept that a company needs a sense of purpose. It seems that Satya Nadella relies on that belief as a core guide while leading Microsoft. He has united the company’s employees behind one sense of purpose; to ensure that the company’s platforms and tools help drive small business productivity, large business competitiveness, and public sector efficiency.

It doesn’t just stop there. The company aims to support new startups, improve educational health and health outcomes, and empower human ingenuity.

The team understands that the mission at Microsoft is customer success. In the continuous effort to renew the company, Nadella has been investing in the biggest growth opportunities. He’s also led innovation in cloud computing and AI, and brought Microsoft’s technology and products together into experiences and solutions that unlock new value for customers.

This renewed sense of purpose has given Microsoft employees something to fight for. They wake up with the desire to create transformation and support small businesses around the world. It is precisely this sense of purpose upon which a company thrives because everyone feels like they are contributing to a bigger cause; something much bigger than them.

8. Reiterating the company’s mission

According to Satya, Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. What a simple mission statement!

During one of his first tours of Europe as Microsoft CEO, Satya repeated this mission at the beginning of his speech everywhere he gave it. This is an important element of good public relations. Making sure the world knows about the exact mission your company intends to fulfill is a great way of driving the story about the company home. The airwaves will speak of this very message as will the media outlets that publish in print and online. This way, your mission will keep spreading, and you get a lot of goodwill from the people that know about your company and hear this message.

In a myriad of ways, this PR strategy has helped Microsoft change how people view it. It has assisted in improving how the company is perceived by developers, industry participants, investors, and consumers. Sometimes, the best PR strategy is to ensure that you repeat the same message over and over again as Satya has demonstrated over the last 5 years.

9. Embracing a growth mindset

The Microsoft CEO is a huge proponent of the growth mindset. He advises against taking things for granted. In his world, every assumption needs to be checked against new or old data; and new data needs to inform new decisions.

He believes that there is no growth if your knowledge plateaus. This is why he is an extremely avid reader. After all, reading books exposes you to new knowledge. New knowledge informs new decisions. It’s a continuous lifestyle of learning. He believes that the best leaders are also the most avid readers.

10. Spearheading culture change

All of these transformation points just point to one major shift in the company; change of culture. Satya transformed the Microsoft culture from one of constant complaints and aggression to one where teamwork was a defining factor. He transformed how people thought about their purpose at work by making them believe that they were doing something that will help mankind from a very noble perspective. He showed them the new focus, cloud computing, and AI. Feeling inspired, everyone on the team set their eyes on the prize.

He transformed the team from thousands of employees who were anything but cohesive into people who believed that working as a team would allow their creativity to catapult them to new levels of success. This was good news for the company. 

11. Creating energy, even in the midst of uncertainty

According to Satya, the best leaders create an inspiring sense of energy. As a result, whenever you meet a business leader, you walk away with a desire to join their cause. What’s more, these people create a contagious sense of energy even in the middle of crisis and uncertainty.

In other words, the looming recession which we’re facing at the moment shouldn’t stop a great leader from achieving success. In fact, the best leaders have embraced this as an opportunity to better understand their customers and employees, as well as create a sense of community online.

“Leaders have this innate capability to go into situations that are uncertain, ambiguous and bring clarity… Leaders are not people who go into a confusing situation and create more confusion.” ~ Satya Nadella

12. Putting the needs of others first

In order to be a great leader, you must move beyond what you need to focus on what those around you need. By understanding your employees’ needs, you can create a positive work environment where all the members of your team can thrive and function at maximum capability.

Likewise, if you can take time to understand customer needs, then you can develop products which they will appreciate while also building positive customer relationships.

13. Creating inspiration

Satya Nadella strongly believes that one of the important responsibilities of a leader is to create and share regular inspiring messages to drive employee action. To this effect, he regularly communicates with Microsofts over 150,000 employees around the world to share his plans for the future and invite feedback.

Beyond that, he regularly bounces ideas off his team of employees via email. By connecting with employees in this way, he’s actually built a robust startup team.

The success which Satya Nadella has achieved at Microsoft is a source of envy for many entrepreneurs. For this reason, his advice could be beneficial to rising entrepreneurs who hope to reach the same level of success.

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