Satya Nadella, the New Microsoft and a Quest for 'Swing'

By Michelle Maisto Print this article Print

At MacWorld 2009, John Gruber, of the Daring Fireball blog, gave a talk called the "The Auteur Theory of Design," in which he talked about how just as films benefit from having an auteur—a director with a vision who is constantly making decisions—so could other disciplines.

He gave the example of a theoretical software company—that could theoretically be in a town like Redmond, Wash.—and how it could hire the absolute brightest talent, but then put them to work in groups that ultimately create products that are less than the sum of the brilliance that led to them, instead of being greater.

I learned about the talk in a 2011 New York Times article that used Gruber's point to explain the difference between Google (lots of talent, lots of opinions) and Apple under Steve Jobs (lots of talent, but an auteur with a vision ultimately making the calls).

Both came to mind Tuesday morning when new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced changes to his SLT—senior leadership team.

Nadella named Chris Capossela executive vice president and chief marketing officer, which immediately seemed to me a positive thing. Not because I know a single thing about Capossela but for the fact of the role being shaped.

"I have decided we need a single leader running marketing for the company," Nadella said in statement, suggesting he was moving away from more of a many-minds model.

Also notable was the appointment of Mark Penn—a consultant who has acted as an advisor to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, as well as Hillary Clinton—as chief strategy officer.

Nadella described the chief strategy role as a "new leadership role at the company" and Penn as bringing to Microsoft a "blend of data analysis and creativity."  

The New York Times, in a March 3 profile, described Penn as someone who causes feelings to "run hot" and who "has become something of a Rorschach test for colleagues at Microsoft."

It continued, "Some see him as a thoughtful adviser who rubs hidebound colleagues the wrong way by presenting them with useful data on messaging and strategy that runs counter to their intuition. Others say he massages his research, conducted through the polling of consumers, to bolster his own preconceived ideas."

Whether to trust data over one's gut is a separate and worthwhile topic—and one that Malcolm Gladwell has already thoroughly tackled. It might or might not backfire on Penn.

I liked, though, that if even in a small way—and even while bringing in a past CEO to hold his hand a bit—Nadella had the instinct to narrow the leadership team to where he could give a few opinions more weight.

Nadella concluded his companywide announcement with a quote from a book about the University of Washington rowing team that describes the tremendous difficulty of finding and sustaining "swing"—the occurrence of all eight oarsmen "rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of sync with those of the others."

Some teams never find it, said the book.

Nadella encouraged everyone, "as a company, as a leadership team, as individuals," to find their swing.

I rather hope that, understanding for himself the four-leaf clover he's wished for, Nadella trusts his leadership team to advise, and then sets his vision and leads.

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This article was originally published on 2014-03-05