Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Showed He Gets It. Bill Gates Never Really Did

Absurdly Driven usually looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Why do you want to start a company?

To get rich, painfully but quickly? To dominate, quickly and then for a long time?

So much of business language is wrapped up in a vocabulary of war and sports that you’d think it’s just you against the enemies and you have to emerge victorious, while the enemy must be decimated.

Since becoming Redmond’s guiding light, Nadella has offered urbanity as opposed to Bill Gates’s nakedly aggressive drive for absolute hegemony. (That’s the old Bill Gates, you understand.)

Nadella has turned Microsoft from a feared, often loathed company into one that seems to rise above most controversy and even to court a peculiarly humanized sanity.

He said: 

It’s not about, ‘Okay, let’s first go make a lot of money.’

It isn’t? Many might wonder that this is how it’s been — especially in tech — for the last 20 years. It’s an attitude that made Gates very rich.

Yet Nadella believes every company should consider not merely itself and its coming greatness, but how and why it operates in the wider world.

His principle is this: 

As a first unit of scale, at the core of your business model, are you creating a surplus around you?

No, not just a revenue surplus. A surplus of goods —  the social good, the environmental good and the good of positive governance. Nadella explained: 

If Microsoft is doing well, that means we’re creating productivity for that small business somewhere in the world. A multinational that’s becoming more productive, employing more people, creating jobs. Public sector is becoming more efficient. Educational outcomes, health outcomes are getting better.

It’s surely true that every business, multinational or local, can contribute at least something to wider aims. 

Yet Nadella believes that some of his rivals simply don’t care.

He referred to what he called aggregator business models. Those espoused by companies that simply try to dominate the world’s content, without actually contributing anything to — what is it they keep on saying in Silicon Valley? Oh yes — making the world a better place.

It’s hard not to imagine that he has Facebook and perhaps a few of its contemporaries in mind when he says: 

I would question the business models of these other companies.

Many questioned Microsoft’s business model for the longest time. Perhaps it was merely a product of its times, but Gates seemed determined to force every business in the world to use his company’s occasionally mediocre software. He didn’t appear to give too many hoots about society at large.

Even when his ad agency created a campaign that was emotional, aspirational and spoke to human potential, it didn’t last very long.

It was remarkable, indeed, how Apple mocked him with cheery, human incisiveness in its quite wonderful Get A Mac campaign.

Things have changed. Both for him and for Microsoft. While Gates has, since he left Microsoft, dedicated so much of his time and wealth to actually, really making the world a better place — or at least a safer one — Microsoft has significantly changed both its tone and its approach to business. It acknowledges others with far more respect.

Of course, some could accuse Nadella of sanctimony. Yet once the world emerges from the Coronavirus crisis — and it’ll be a very different world — I suspect there’ll be an even greater emphasis on the broader, more human good offered by companies.

Especially the largest ones. Especially the largest ones in tech.

Would Gates’s Microsoft have given employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave because of today’s crisis — as Nadella’s just did? I wonder.

Perhaps, these days, it’s worth being prepared for an altered atmosphere with very different human values and not just grabbing for the largest number of bucks you can.

Published on: Apr 19, 2020

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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