What Can We Learn From Microsoft’s Leaders?

What Can We Learn From Microsoft’s Leaders?
Image: Getty Images

By the end of last year it was apparent, to me at least, that trust was the biggest issue of the year. From Facebook’s annus horribilis to the government’s Access and Accessibility Bill, it was clear that trust was a big xel. But this year, as we head into a Federal election and companies around the world deal with the aftermath of the trust issues we saw last year, I think the big challenge will be leadership.

What Is leadership?

Since I did my management degree 20 years ago, this has been a question I have asked constantly. There are a stack of text book definitions but I think good leadership (and I’m not talking about management – I think management is a different, although sometimes overlapping, skill) is about having a vision that is clearly articulated and being able to take people on the journey towards that vision.

There are a bunch of skills that requires such as empathy, great communication skills that are adaptable, creativity integrity, trust and the willingness to empower people. Great leaders can think strategically and anticipate challenges before they arise and have considered solutions to problems so, if something does go off course, they can correct things without panicking.

In my 30 years of working life I’ve only encountered a couple of good leaders and a handful of good managers. So, despite a plethora of books, course and academic research, it seems that few people are able to take that knowledge and distil it into usable skills.

Why Leadership Matters

When organisations lack good leaders they make dumb mistakes. I worked at a company early in my working life that fell apart after the board hired a leader that wasn’t suited to the business. While they were (probably) great leaders in other contexts, their vision never really engaged the staff.

By the end, there was a running joke, before the company started having to cut staff prior to be broken up and sold. It was – “What does it take to create an $800M company?” The answer was “Start with a $1.2B company and hire the wrong leader”.

Before entering the business world, I was a secondary school teacher and worked at a handful of different schools. I’ve also seen my children go through a number of different schools and have worked as the IT Director at another.

The difference between good schools and those that struggle is leadership. I’ve seen good schools lose ground when they don’t hire a great principal and bad schools turned around in under a year with a great leader.

Comparing Leaders

I’ve been thinking about Microsoft’s three leaders; Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Satya Nadella.

Gates had a clear vision that engaged the company. Almost 44 years ago, he had a simply articulated vision; a PC on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software. Back in the mid-1970s, that was a bold vision but one people could get behind.

It was aspirational, achievable and inspiring. And for most of Gates’ tenure, it united the company.

Flash forward to 2014 and Satya Nadella started as the company’s CEO, taking over from Steve Ballmer. The vision he brings to Microsoft is to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”

Unlike Gates’ vision there’s no limit to this. And it’s positive and focussed on the customer.

Sandwiched between Nadella and Gates is Steve Ballmer. His vision can be summarised in two words: copy Apple. Ballmer was a great salesman and his goal was all about chasing revenue by becoming a devices and services business. And while there was a big positive to come from his period as CEO – the formation of the Surface group – there has been the company’s catastrophic miss on mobile devices and the destruction of Nokia. His “devices and services” mantra was ditched in favour of productivity and empowerment.

What We Can Learn From Gates, Ballmer And Nadella

Looking back at Microsoft’s three CEOs, it’s clear that two had a vision that engages staff and customers, is clearly articulated and is focussed on making the company stand out from the pack.

If you’re an aspiring leader – and we can all be leaders regardless of the title on a business card or position in an org chart – does your team know what you’re about? Can you clearly say “This is what I stand for.”? And can you clearly explain how you will achieve that vision in a values-based way that engages people.

Whether you’re in a start up, work in a small team or run a large business, having a vision and bringing people on the journey is the core of leadership.

Log in to comment on this story!