One of Microsoft’s new CEO’s strengths? He doesn’t finish business books…


When Microsoft’s new CEO was announced last week, there was a great deal of commentary about his  – doubtless very carefully crafted – introductory email to the company.

Part of Satya Nadella‘s description of himself made me immediately empathetic:

Many who know me say I am also defined by my curiosity and thirst for learning. I buy more books than I can finish. I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things. So family, curiosity and hunger for knowledge all define me.

There are two things that make me like Mr Nadella a bit from reading that quote. First: I do that too. Last night I flicked through the books on my Kindle – there are  so many interesting ones there that I’ve barely started or not started at all. It’s a teetering, digital monument to curiosity and to having an appetite for learning that is beyond my current means (in terms of time, mainly) to support. 

The second thing that warms me to his statement is its echo of what I was talking about in my post last week, Finishedness – realising that you can’t, and often shouldn’t, finish everything that you start. This ability is strength, contrary to the puritan work ethic/completer-finisher fallacy.

Mr Nadella’s email  was a positioning exercise – mainly in distancing himself from the style of his predecessor, the bombastic Steve Ballmer. The latter didn’t talk much about his reading habits – and would be more likely to reel off the number of books completed – a PB roll-call of reading velocity.

In the age of digital superabundance of information, leaders must be curious and hungry to learn, but also mindful that they cannot hope to read everything, to learn everything that they would like to. It’s the larger scale version of FOMO (fear of missing out) – applied to thinking and knowledge rather than social network updates, but the same in essence.

Mr Nadella’s statement shows self-awareness, acceptance of his limitations and a desire for continual learning. Whatever he does with Microsoft in the next few years, in this aspect he has the right stuff to be a digital leader.

Image credit: (cc) Official Le Web photos

5 responses to “One of Microsoft’s new CEO’s strengths? He doesn’t finish business books…”

  1. I was having the “are you a starter or a finisher” conversation with someone last week. My take on it (I’ve got several, this is just one of them) is that you can’t be a leader unless you are a starter.

    Yes, it helps considerably if you are able to be a finisher – especially when the need really arises. But being a starter – being driven by curiosity, enthusiasm for ideas – needs to be a fundamental part of who you are, of what makes you tick.

    Final thought… the puritan work ethic. I’ve always been a bit foxed by the notion of the ‘Christian work ethic’, seeing as work was handed down by God to Adam and Eve as a punishment in the Garden of Eden.

  2. Starter’s need finishers, and more than one preferably. Leaders are definitely starters. They need to inspire and create by getting the ball rolling. I was going to write more but I got distracted…. ;)

  3. I think that as well as realising where you are on the starter-finisher spectrum, a skill is to be discerning about what you finish, and to be prepared to abandon things that aren’t worth completing.

    On the Christian work ethic, I was raised by lapsed Catholics, one of whom was converted to protestantism, so I like to joke that I got the Protestant work ethic and Catholic guilt combined – I work myself into the ground and feel terrible about it… ;)

  4. It’s interesting how, IMHO, Nadella has made himself more endearing (and potentially Microsoft too) by being more human and fallable. Conversely, Tim Cook at Apple is already quite personable (certainly much more approachable than Jobs), yet my view of Apple has deteriorated somewhat – as if the mystery of Jobs was part of the appeal of Apple.

  5. I’d see the Nadella/Ballmer contrast as being about intellectually engaged and curious, rather than driven first and foremost by the commercials. It’s the intellectual curiosity and connecting nature of Jobs that created the Apple magic.

    Ultimately the products rather than the personalities are what define the brand experience for me – but the style of leadership and the values of the leader will have a big influence on how good those products are. I don’t know enough about Satya Nadella to say how he will affect the quality of Microsoft’s products – but I’m looking forward to seeing how the company changes with him in charge.

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