Thursday, July 24, 2014

Leading Change – Lessons for New Leaders from Satya Nadella

Guest post from Randy Ottinger:

Today’s Microsoft is not the same company we saw a year ago when Steve Ballmer was at the helm. Since Ballmer’s successor, Satya Nadella, took over the CEO role in February of this year, change at Microsoft has come swiftly. Executives have been reshuffled, organizational priorities have shifted and the culture at the very top of the company has change. Many of these shifts, and the reasons behind them, are unveiled in Nadella’s recent open strategy memo to staff. While not all the changes are easy –see last week’s announcement the company would cut 18,000 jobs – they are plotting a bold new course for what has traditionally been a more conservative organization.

The question that likely occurs to many observers of the shifts at Microsoft is to ask “What is Nadella’s vision for change?” How can new leaders at organizations large and small help stir things up in a positive way that produces new innovations, generates new energy and engages staff?

While no one formula fits all situations and contexts, I believe that there are a few key steps to achieve impactful change:

Know your destination and plot a clear course

Ambiguity can be a killer when a new leader comes on the scene – if not addressed immediately it can slow momentum, derail progress and lead to disengagement amongst staff. Under Ballmer’s tenure, Microsoft suffered from a lack of direction that, while not hurting the company financially, made the longer term future of the business murky at best. Nadella, by contrast, set a strong direction from day one, clearly laying out a destination in his focus on “mobile-first, cloud-first” technologies. It’s a clear, simple drumbeat that his team can rally around. Now, he’s tackling the second piece of the puzzle with his open memo on Microsoft’s strategy, where Nadella lays out the numerous tactical changes he has in mind to reach that destination.
Get the right team together

In any organization that needs to make a break with the past, the new leader will need to work quickly to ensure the team at the top shares a vision for the organization’s future. While this doesn’t necessarily mean wiping the slate clean, it’s important that the relied-upon employees are rallied around the same cause and focused on the same goals. In many cases, it may be necessary to make a few staffing changes to build the base of support critical to new leaders accomplishing their goals.

In Nadella’s case, within his first few months, in line with the future destination he had plotted for the business and his new focus on certain product classes, he adjusted staff within the marketing team and mixed up the leadership in the device and cloud divisions of the company.

Not just top down, but bottom up too

At the same time, as a new leader, it’s important to ensure your future vision takes into account a diversity of viewpoints, and that your course aligns with the character and capabilities of the organization. Nadella is known as a quiet listener and team player within Microsoft, but it’s this understated leadership style that has allowed him to sound out his ideas with colleagues, and learn from others at all levels within the company.  By seeking engagement from the organization as a whole, it’s possible to get the team, even those contributors at the lowest levels, focused on the destination. Nadella’s focus now on “productivity” rather than more traditional ‘consumer’ or ‘business’ technology segments may be a reflection of what he’s learned in his internal conversations – a departure from past siloed thinking, while still recognizing the character of Microsoft’s leading software and hardware products, which tend to blur the lines between work and consumer technology.

Engage the organization with quick wins

To fully cement the change you aim to accomplish as a new leader, quick wins are crucial for building momentum. Early successes back up your goals, can help persuade the non-committal within the organization, and encourage those already on board to push for more progress. For instance, Nadella drove home his mobile/cloud and productivity agenda early in his tenure with the release of Office for iPad, the elimination of licensing fees for Windows on smartphones and smaller tablets and the release of hybrid cloud management tools for Azure.

For new leaders, driving organizational change can be challenging at best – you need a team captain and cheerleader rolled into one. But the leaders who set a clear course, rally a team, ask for input and prove their case are the leaders most often successful in rejuvenating stolid organizations and re-energizing tired workforces. I predict this will be true for Nadella.

About the author:

Randy Ottinger is an Executive Vice President at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. He previously spent more than 20 years as a high tech executive for companies like: IBM, McCaw Cellular (Claircom), and Captaris. In addition, Randy is an established author as well as a legacy leadership expert.

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