Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Bit of Camelot at Microsoft

Some say Satya Nadella is Microsoft’s knight in shining armor. It turns out the metaphor is not so far-fetched.

While he may not know it, the Microsoft CEO is channeling a bit of King Arthur. And Redmond, Washington shows some hints of Camelot.

Simone Stolzoff profiled Nadella in a recent Quartz article, which was striking in the way it tracked some of the characteristics of King Arthur outlined in my book Camelot, Inc. Arthur, likely a composite figure stitched together over a few centuries, has uncanny resonance in today’s world of business and politics.

In the case of Mr. Nadella, whom I know only through articles and interviews, we see an unassuming ruler/CEO who commands a far-flung empire/company. Here are a few of the Arthurian traits seen in Mr. Nadella:

Humility. Arthur was known to be “of the people” and eschewed many formalities. Nadella famously had a stage lowered so he wasn’t seen looking down on the audience, literally and figuratively. Bluster was out, thoughtfulness was in. Pomp and circumstance gave way to being relatable and approachable.

Accountability. Arthur established a new civil code, which was applied equally even when it put his own family at risk. When Nadella botched an answer and sounded insensitive to the issue of women and pay raises, he admitted it quickly and wrote a message to the company.

Articulating Mission and Vision. Arthur inherited a chaotic kingdom with threats from within and abroad. He created common purpose and common values, uniting the country, brought relative peace, and did what was right and good, not what was convenient or conventional. Numerous challenges faced Microsoft when Nadella took control but his first order of business was to address the company’s mission and culture. He knew being too deeply in love with their 20th century idea of “a computer on every desk” would leave Microsoft behind in the 21st. A new rallying point needed to be created.

Communication. Among its many symbolic aspects, the Round Table was a gathering place. Arthur demanded occasional face-to-face time to rekindle relationships and share ideas because his knights were most often far out in the countryside enforcing the new laws. At Microsoft, employees are invited for “One Week” — an annual meeting to “drum up new ideas, tackle problems, create change and make a difference.”

Learn, Do, Repeat. Well before he knew he was to be King (and knew of his noble birth), young Arthur was tutored by Merlin who told him (in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King), “Learn why the world wags and what wags it.” And when Arthur thought he failed, Merlin reminded him “It was an experiment. Experiments lead to new ones.” Microsoft made a business and cultural leap when it adopted a learning mindset. “We went from a culture of know-it-alls to a culture of learn-it-alls,” said Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer.

There are many more parallels and, to be sure, we can learn much about what not to do, too, from King Arthur. For now, I’ll be happy that a little bit of Arthur lives on. I only wish there were more leaders to include in the story.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.