The rise of Microsoft was nothing short of meteoric. In a world dominated by physical products, Microsoft sold something intangible: operating systems and productivity software. Along with IBM, which allowed clones of its ground-breaking personal computer, it democratised computing in a completely unexpected way.

Within 15 years, the brands that had dominated computing for decades had disappeared or retreated: Burroughs, Univac, Nixdorf, Control Data and Honeywell, known collectively as “The Bunch”. In 1986, the same year as Sperry (another long-gone brand) bought Univac, Microsoft became a billion-dollar company.

Only ten years later, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Microsoft’s star was waning. Until, that is, Satya Nadella took over as CEO. He started in 2014. By 2018, for the first time since 2003, Microsoft was once again the most valuable listed business. Since then its value has tripled, and it is now a trillion-dollar company. That’s trillion with a T.

What underpinned this phenomenal rise was the change in culture that Nadella championed and executed. He is quoted as saying: “Empathy is an existential priority in our business.”

It seems counter-intuitive that a software and cloud business prizes the “soft skill” of empathy so highly. That it credits empathy with its very existence. That is until you read what else Nadella has to say: “Our business is to meet the unarticulated needs of our customers. There is no way we can innovate if we don’t listen—not just to their words, but if we don’t really go deep to understand their needs. Life experience teaches you to do that.”

To turn around a culture that inhibited innovation, Nadella and his leaders had to develop a collaborative spirit that prized learning from mistakes. He led by example: in 2014, shortly after becoming CEO, a number of women in the firm asked for his advice on how to request a raise. He gave a response that he soon regretted. Only a few hours later, he sent a company-wide email saying he had “answered that question completely wrong.”

Accenture has collaborated with the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers Community to conduct research into what leadership should look like in the next decade. The research surfaced five “Leadership Elements” which I am discussing in this blog series.

One of the five elements is “Emotion and Intuition.”

This element includes the character trait of humility. By demonstrating humility and making an explicit effort to counter unconscious bias, Nadella demonstrated that mistakes are learning opportunities.

The other two Leadership Elements that Microsoft emphasises are Mission and Purpose and Intellect and Insight. Reading Nadella’s quote about Microsoft’s purpose—to meet the unarticulated needs of its customers—creates a sense of meaning and purpose in the business.  And a key aspect of the Intellect and Insight Leadership Element is continuous learning. In my first blog of this series, I spoke about how continuous learning has emerged to become a feature of top executive teams.

The full report is fascinating and synthesises insights with illustrative case studies. You can read it here: Seeking New Leadership: Responsible leadership for and sustainable and equitable world.

I am always open to chat to you about how Accenture uses this and other research to share insights with our customers. And I read all the mail I receive. Feel free to reach out to me here.