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- Books are a big part of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s life.
- One book that influenced him was Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication,” which he asked his top executives to read.
- Below is a list of some of the books the CEO of the most valuable company in the world recommends.
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The sheer number of books contained in Satya Nadella’s corner office highlights how much he reads — both pages and screens are indispensable parts of his life.
The CEO of Microsoft, the most valuable company in the world, grounds himself and Microsoft’s culture on ideas he’s learned thanks to his reading habit. The principles he derived from psychological and historical titles like “Mindset” by Carol Dweck continue to define his tenure as CEO.
“I read a few pages here or a few pages there,” Nadella told Fast Company. “There are a few books, of course, that you read end-to-end. But without books I can’t live.”
Nadella’s time as CEO was initially shaped by Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication,” which he asked his top executives to read. This was the first indicator to senior leadership that Nadella would not operate like his predecessors. In his second earnings call, Nadella borrowed a phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche by saying that investors could expect “courage in the face of reality” from Microsoft.
We’ve compiled in the following list for anyone who wants to start reading, or quoting literature, like Satya Nadella.
“Little Gidding” by T. S. Eliot
In Nadella’s first press briefing in March 2014, he memorably quoted a line from the prolific 20th-century poet T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.” Nadella used this in the context of explaining how even though he had spent 22 years at Microsoft, he saw things in a different perspective from his new position as CEO.
“I think TS Elliot captured it best when he said that you should never cease from exploration, and at the end of all exploring you arrive where you started and know the place for the very first time,” Nadella said. “And for me that has been more true than ever before.”
“Little Gidding” was actually Eliot’s last great work. One analysis said, “it is a poem about traditions in the present, and a present-day poem that absorbs past traditions.”
“Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg
Nonviolent communication integrates qualities like compassion and effective communication to allow for better leadership.
Rosenberg writes from a position of experience and research: He has started peace programs in places throughout the world that have experienced the effects of war, including Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Serbia, and Ireland. This book outlines the principles of peaceful conflict resolution. It’s interesting to note that one of the concepts involves sharing power with others instead of using power over others.
Nadella recommended it to his leadership team, symbolically differentiating his expectations from that of his predecessors. Reports have found that Microsoft used to have a conflict-heavy culture under Steve Ballmer — now there’s nonviolent communication coming from the top.
“Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck
Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, popularized her research into mindsets with this book. Instead of assuming that your abilities are stuck in place — signaling a “fixed mindset” — Dweck encourages people to view skills as learnable, flexible, and growable, which is called a “a growth mindset.”
Her research suggests that mindset is a predictor of achievement across many situations, including education, negotiations, performance evaluation, motivation, international conflict, and how likely people are to stereotype others.
Nadella has pointed to growth mindset as the essential ingredient of the change he’s driven at Microsoft.
“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown
Daniel James Brown’s writing focus is “bringing compelling historical events to life,” which he strives to do in this book. He worked at Microsoft for over a decade and has taught writing at Stanford and San Jose University.
Nadella referred to this book in an email about senior leadership changes early in his time as CEO. He specifically refers to a description within the book about the “swing” of the boat, or the rarely found rhythm where the entire crew team’s movement is in synchrony.
“As a company, as a leadership team, as individuals, that is our goal – to find our swing,” Nadella wrote. “As an SLT and across the company we are on our way.”
“The Book of Three” By Lloyd Alexander
Nadella hasn’t outright recommended this children’s fantasy novel as much as he has quoted from it: From Chapter 1, to be specific.
It’s from a scene in which the protagonist, Taran, expresses frustration at his position as an assistant pig keeper. He wants to be like the prince, but the wise enchanter Dallben says that this is “entirely out of the question.” When Taran asks why, Dallben says, “we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”
Lloyd Alexander wrote this in the first book, “The Book of Three,” in the award-winning series “The Chronicles of Prydain.” He wrote more than 40 fantasy books over his lifetime.
“An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Col. Chris Hadfield
The astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield has spent over 4,000 hours in space and spent thousands of hours more training to get there. His bestselling book gives readers a space-eye view of Hadfield’s adventures and may change the way they think about their lives on earth.
Nadella tweeted a quote from this book, “Focus on the journey, not on arriving at a certain destination,” along with “Great read!”
“The Great Convergence” by Richard Baldwin
Richard Baldwin, an international-economics professor in Geneva, explains that new technologies could allow ideas to quickly span the globe: Telepresence and telerobotics could change the way people work and communicate — and corporations and countries will have to adjust accordingly.
Baldwin earned his Ph.D. at MIT under the guidance of the Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.
Nadella sees similarities between the ideas in this book and technology like Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, which allows for idea sharing and collaboration, regardless of geographic distance.
“The Great Transformation” by Karl Polanyi
According to Fast Company, Nadella’s father recommended this 1944 book to him “long ago.” The book takes the stance that society should propel economic change and looks at the progress of England’s market economy.
Polanyi was a Hungarian American political economist who proposed the idea of substantivism with this book. The idea applies culture to economic theory to arrive at a twofold meaning of the word “economics”: the first is the formal definition of economics as the choices that are made in consideration of scarcity, and the second is how people meet their material needs by interacting with the social and physical worlds.
“The Rise and Fall of American Growth” by Robert J. Gordon
The author Robert Gordon is a professor in social sciences at Northwestern University and a Bloomberg influential thinker of 2016. This book received a number of accolades and made the New York Times best-seller list.
Nadella referenced the book in a speech at the company’s 2018 Build developer conference:
And so I was thinking about the historical parallel where there was this much change, this kind of opportunity, this kind of tumultuous discussion, and I was reminded of a book that I read maybe three years ago by Robert Gordon, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth.”
And in there he, in fact, talks about the Industrial Revolution and even contrasts it with the Digital Revolution. He gives the PC credit for the last time digital technology showed up in our productivity stats, which is nice, but in general he sort of talks about what an amazing revolution the Industrial Revolution was in terms of its broad sectoral impact in productivity and growth.
Gordon argues that the ongoing “Digital Revolution” is in fact much less profound than the industrial one the preceded it, particularly the “Great Inventions” that transformed America into the modernity it knows today — like electricity, pharmaceuticals, urban sanitation, modern communication, and the internal combustion engine.
But Paul Krugman said in his review that maybe transformative technology is again around the corner — like with artificial intelligence, or, more to Nadella’s point of view, cloud computing.
“Deep Learning” by Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio, and Aaron Courville
This is a textbook on one of the most important technologies of our time, written by formative figures in the field.
Coauthor Yoshua Bengio became an adviser at Microsoft after this book was published, and with good reason — he and his coauthors are pioneers in the growing field of machine learning.
Ian Goodfellow is well-known as the inventor of generative adversarial networks (GANs), now a widely used class of algorithms.
Aaron Courville is an assistant professor at the Department of Computer Science and Operations Research (DIRO) at the University of Montreal, and his research interests include developing new machine-learning models and methods.
Elon Musk and Facebook AI chief Yann LeCun have also said good things about this textbook.
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