Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone- Review

Title: Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

Author: Satya Nadella With Greg Shaw & Jill Tracie Nichols

Publisher: HarperCollins 2017

Pages: 272; Price: Rs 599

The best of times seldom prompt a change at the top. The cross-winds blow on mercilessly; the tides churn away regardless of the new hand on the helm; and a storm is brewing out there somewhere – while the crew waits for signs. Of confidence, confusion; of dithering, determination. Will you hold the course or tack against the winds? Will you carry the team or … and if you are an insider moving into the top slot with your cultural baggage and comfort zones, not to mention those resenting your appointment  … oh well!

Satya Nadella was an insider who was aware he was taking charge of Microsoft when besides the market indicators, employees did not think the company was headed in the right direction. Saddest of all, says Satya, many felt the company was losing its soul. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer may have built the company but it was clear that Microsoft needed a new kind of leader.

So when he was appointed as the CEO, Satya’s prime concern was the renewal of the company’s culture. For this he had to “ruthlessly remove all barriers to innovation” and get back to why they had all joined Microsoft: to make a difference to the world, democratize technology. He posed some challenging questions to himself and to the leaders of Microsoft: Why does the company exist? What is the role of a multinational corporation in our world? What is the role of a leader in digital technology, especially as the world turns to tech as such a crucial input to drive growth? (The questions persist right into the Afterword). However, it is one thing to examine yourself and delve into your soul for answers to all the right questions, it is quite another to get a whole group of silo-based leaders, with their own successful teams, onto the same page.

Microsoft had meetings of the Senior Leadership Team every Friday; Satya used this platform to introduce Mindfulness Training (a form of conscious meditation) in one of the first such meetings after he took over. The meeting, intensely emotional and exhausting, affected the team deeply; each leader, he says, was no longer solely employed by Microsoft; they were to employ Microsoft in pursuit of their personal passions to empower others.  Satya also changed the format of the Annual Retreat: he invited founders of companies they had acquired in the previous year, so that they could get a fresh, outside perspective from these “mission-oriented, innovative, born in the mobile-first and cloud-first world”; and, to a lot of initial resentment, he included customer visits.

Here is another great Indian who leads one of the most successful IT companies in recent times, a fact that other Indians are very proud of, but the head that wears the crown speaks the powerful language of humility and basic, ground-breaking questions. Questions about transformation – personal and organizational.  Driven by a sense of empathy and a desire to empower.  About the “change coming in every life … that will include artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and quantum computing.”

The rest is not quite history, as yet. “Microsoft’s transformation is not complete,” says Satya, “but I am proud of our progress.”

Where did all this come from? His range of reading, for one, is awesome: from Asimov to “The Upside of Inequality” and “Microserfs” to Goethe and Thackeray; “The Constitution Today” and Niels Bohr and “Madison’s Music” (a work on civil rights), to mystical poetry and then some Psychology.  Movies he recalls like “Westworld”, “Creed”, “The Candidate”, “The Interview” and several more. There are lessons learnt from cricket too. All uniquely adding to the frame of mind that took over as CEO of Microsoft – a culmination of experiences that provided raw material for the “set of principles based on the alchemy of purpose, innovation, and empathy”.

In his introduction, Bill Gates did refer, perhaps facetiously, to: “more literary quotations than you might expect …” but it’s no joke. For a person who is keen on balancing his work and family which, in his particular case, would need a 36-hour day, he finds time to read so extensively! Gates also comments that Satya is “…making big bets on a few key technologies … where Microsoft will differentiate itself.”  One is struck by the sheer confidence that Microsoft has placed on Satya Nadella’s leadership: Where Microsoft will differentiate itself.

The book is about many things that Satya Nadella says it is. But is much more about the man for whom Microsoft is not just a feather in his cap but a means for growing into a more empathetic, more soul-searching and at the same time, a more innovative human being; it is also about encouraging people to hit Refresh – each of us assigning our own meaning – ad importance to it.

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