Exercising My Growth Mindset
Meeting with Satya Nadella
Last published on Dec 30, 2018 by Koshy John

On a crisp Monday morning in March 2016, I changed into perfectly laundered formals with my day rehearsed to the minutest of details.

I was going to meet with the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, and shadow him on a customer engagement at the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center. I even reconned the initial meeting point on the day before to ensure I wasn't unprepared in any way. It was just the second time I was meeting him since he became CEO, and the first with a sizable one-on-one time. So, as would anybody in that situation, I wanted it to go perfectly.

Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast

Foundational to Microsoft's success in the past half-decade where it's seen it market capitalization more than quadruple was the focus on improving culture that Satya drove. Having been at Microsoft long enough to see it operate in the old Ballmer way and then transition into the new, I could deeply appreciate the compounding effect it had on performance and growth at the ground level. At first, it may have seemed like just like window dressing or potentially futile efforts into the ether. But slowly and steadily, each internal training after another, each town hall after another, each executive e-mail after the last, the new cultural mindset started taking hold and the massive multi-billion dollar behemoth that is Microsoft changed direction.

An important part of that culture was being 'Customer Obsessed' - knowing your customer and understanding deeply how Microsoft technologies empower them to thrive and make their own difference in the world. Who better to learn that from than the individual with whom the buck stops and who was championing that customer-centric attitude - our CEO. And how better to capture the essence of what that means at its finest than watching him in action actually engaging deeply with an important customer.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

Another foundational piece of our new culture was a concept called 'Growth Mindset'. It is based on research by Carol Dweck (a distinguished Professor of Psychology at Standford) that suggests that an individual can develop their talents and abilities through perseverance, good strategies and external help. This is as opposed to a fixed mindset that the qualities you have are innate and constant. It is more nuanced than that and, if you desire, you can dive deep in her book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

There are many problems that arise from having a fixed mindset - a degree of unjustified dismissiveness of criticism and an inertia against learning new things. These were things that many internally have seen first-hand hold the old Microsoft back.

Deeply interested in personal growth and in bringing 110% of myself to the table (thereby doing my part to help any group I was in outperform), I jumped at the chance to "exercise my growth mindset" and learn from the best.

Leading Up to the Engagement That Morning

My primary point of contact for the engagement that morning was Chad DeVries. Chad was the Director of Business Management (Office of the CEO) responsible for Satya's customer/partner engagements.

He had scheduled me in for Satya's meeting with Sanjiv Bajaj and his leadership team at Bajaj Finserv. For those who don't know, Bajaj Finserv is a multi-billion dollar financial services company within a nearly century old Indian conglomerate, the Bajaj Group, that brings in nearly $6 billion in annual revenue.

A few days prior to the engagement, Chad gave me an extensive and meticulously prepared executive briefing document to prepare for the meeting. As the audience of this post is external to Microsoft, I can't go into much detail about what was in the document, but it can safely be assumed that it had a key role in having a successful meeting. It was a huge takeaway from all this for me.

On the day of the engagement, I walked to the restricted area meant for the Office of the CEO and, uncharacteristically, manually had my identification checked. Once past that security perimeter, I spent time with Chad in his office and went into some depth about how and why customer engagements such as this got set up and how all of it worked.

We also rehashed the timeline ahead of us. Amongst other things, he told me that in the actual meeting room Satya would join Sanjiv at the main table, and I'd be able to observe along with him from the row of chairs offset. It's important to remember this because that's not what actually transpired.

Heading to the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center with Satya

At few minutes before we were to meet Bajaj Finserv, Satya joined us, as did with the sales manager from Microsoft India managing the account. While my presence was secondary to the needs and outcome of the meeting, Satya graciously chatted with me at length while we walked over to the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center. It's in all the little things that you can make the measure of a person and Satya consistently exhibited these traits in all our interactions, for which he has my deep respect.

In short order, we arrived at the EBC meeting room where Sanjiv and the Bajaj Finserv team were situated for back to back meetings. We walked in as Joseph Sirosh (then CVP of the Data Platform) was completing a presentation to them, and with brief waves and nods, discreetly waited for him to finish. As we were waiting, I soaked in the setup of the meeting room. Microsoft meeting rooms are consistently very well equipped, but this room was notable in its appointment. A very large Surface Hub overlooked the room, Surfaces were available as every seat at the table, the decor in general was a cut above, there was a standing buffet of delectable food items & beverages and it was all rounded off by executive seating.

As previously instructed, I sat on one of the chairs in the sidelines. When Joseph Sirosh was done, Satya took to the head of the table and, after seeing where I was seated, proceeded to ask me to join him at the table directly to his right. He proceeded to introduce me to Sanjiv and his team, explaining why I was there. I can't say I've ever before (or ever since) been introduced by the CEO of one multi-billion firm to another, and whatever my prior accomplishments were, I can't say I earned it either. Remember the little things making the measure of a man? This was one - this is the kind of person Satya is. I was reminded of this quote: "You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him."

The meeting itself went like clock-work. It was fascinating to watch and learn how Satya intently listened to objectives and concerns being conveyed by Sanjiv & team and then translated that into things addressable by existing and future looking solutions coming out of Microsoft. The cutting edge of what Microsoft was on was on display and light was shone on how they could help solve real, relevant problems. Whatever rare critical feedback was there was addressed quickly by stating which individual with authority could most impactfully address it and a commitment to involve them right away. I can only speak in generalities about what transpired in the meeting as it concerns more than just Microsoft. You can however get a sense of how Bajaj Finserv operates under Sanjiv Bajaj and their reasons for being outstandingly successful through articles like this one from Forbes India.

Post-Meeting Debrief and Miscellany

Walking back from the EBC and later, I had a good 15 minutes of Satya's undivided attention to, amongst other things, discuss the intricacies of how the meeting unfolded and compare my assessment with his. The only insight I could share that he hadn't already considered was how body language and micro-expressions could add another dimension to understanding what was being stated. On the other hand, as was the theme of the day for me, I learnt a lot. I had looked beyond the veil and satiated a little bit more of my hunger to see even more of the bigger picture first-hand - from this and other senior leadership engagements.

One of the marks of a great leader is to listen to understand more than they talk - Satya exemplifies that. He exemplified it that day, as he did in my past interactions with him. And it's not some form of lip service to that notion - two years prior, in the first meeting I was in with him, feedback was surfaced that certain Microsoft policies were inhibiting intra-company talent movement and people were finding it easier to just leave instead. He had his assistant take a note of that, and policies were soon changed across Microsoft to make moves easier. He eluded to how such a change would be a net-positive, emphasizing that one of the data points they look at to identify potentially bad managers was to watch for talent leaving them ("employees should vote with their feet").

Remembering how seriously he took feedback, I took the opportunity to thank him for driving culture changes down the org-chart - noting how certain things were more powerfully applied coming from the top down. Being a Microsoft veteran, being aware of how Microsoft works, he nodded at what I was sharing. I spoke of how I've seen instances of notional 'customer obsession' where people think they've embraced it but unfortunately really haven't. And requested that, as small a drop in the ocean that request might have been, they measure in concrete numbers abstract concepts like customer obsession and that he continued pushing culture changes down without cessation.

After some additional conversation around the specifics of what I was working on and the direction my team was taking, it was time to close. But not without a few photographs! (And some that Chad had kindly sneaked without me realizing while Satya and I were deeply engrossed in conversation.)

What an incredible learning experience!

General Takeaways

For most of my life, I used to get told that extreme attention-to-detail and obsessive personal organization weren't 'good'. You may have been told that too. But let me tell you, with the benefit of everything I've seen, those are actually traits incredibly common in the highest performing individuals I've met, and are often cornerstones to the outcomes they achieve.

As a corollary, you can even suspect under-performance when someone says attention-to-detail is too difficult (or worse, not worthwhile).

Be a continuous learner and embrace the growth mindset. You (yes, you, dear reader) are capable of far more than you realize.

Learn more about Satya Nadella

Learn more about the research behind Fixed and Growth mindsets

Get the book -- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

Get the book -- Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone by Satya Nadella

Did you find this page to be useful? If you did, know what'd be cool? Sharing it with others. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)