About 10 days ago, Satya Nadella sent a 1,500 word email to all staff to tell them about Microsoft’s new mission statement. A reader duly forwarded the message to me with a note saying: sometimes your job is too easy.
I glanced at the email, and agreed. With material like this, my job is too easy. I sat back and waited for someone else to take the memo to pieces. Only no one did.
That could be because no one could get through it. At 1,500 words it is about twice the length of this column, and while I am trying quite hard to encourage you to read on, Mr Nadella made no such effort. His was the usual mishmash of “platforms”, “drivers”, “ecosystems”, “aligns”, “DNAs” and “going forwards” — as well as some more ambitious combinations such as “extend our experience footprint”.
This is what routinely passes for CEO communication in corporate America. But what is special about this example is it came from a big leader of a big company making a big announcement. Microsoft’s third chief executive was trying to convince the world that the company has a plan, and to remind employees what it is, in case they had forgotten. Yet what he came up with was unreadable, largely meaningless hyperbole — and no one turned a hair.
Many readers will have failed to get past the first word. “Team,” the memo begins.
Microsoft employees are not one team, or, if they are, ought not to be. Studies have shown that the ideal number of members of a team is four or five, not 120,000-plus.
“Every great company has an enduring mission.” Mr Nadella goes on. This sounds good, only it is not true.
I like to think that the Financial Times is a great company; we have endured 127 years without an official mission.
With some clearing of the throat about how proud he is in announcing it, the CEO unveils the new mission of Microsoft: “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”.
The first sign of trouble is the word “planet”. There is a rule that says whenever this word is used as a substitute for “world”, the sentence in which it appears is utter tosh. If the cosmic resonance is gratuitous, the author is writing through his hat.
In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates came up with a vastly better mission: a computer on every desk and in every home. There was no windy nonsense about planets, nor any tiresome talk of empowering. Best of all, it was precise. The main problem with the new mission is not its grandiosity but its emptiness. Achieve more what? On this vital question, Mr Nadella is silent.
Indeed, the best way to empower people on the planet to achieve more would be to persuade them to love their mobile devices a little less and turn them off occasionally and get on with something real instead.
Not content with announcing his new mission, Mr Nadella empowers himself to achieve still more: “Today I want to share more on the overall context and connective tissue between our mission, worldview, strategy and culture.”
To have a mission and a vision and worldview is greedy. But to have so many abstract things with lots of connective tissue between them leaves one feeling slightly sick.
In turn he explains each element. Culture, he explains, “is about where everyone is bringing their A game and finding deep meaning in their work”. This is all very well, but spelling it out will do no good. By simply telling your underlings to bring their A games to work, all you do is alienate people who do not like sporting metaphors.
Equally, everyone wants meaning at work, but hardly any white-collar workers ever find it. Mr Nadella has so overexcited himself that he has decreed mere meaning is no longer enough: it has to be deep, or else it does not count. By thus raising the bar so impossibly high, he has ensured no employee has a hope of clearing it.
After a lot more evangelical posturing, Mr Nadella slips into his final paragraph two words that finally mean something. “Tough choices”, he warns, will soon have to be made — using the very same words that Lord Hall of the BBC chose last week when he said that 1,000 jobs were to go. This is the latest CEO euphemism for firing people, and is one of the most disingenuous. “Tough choices” implies this-hurts-me-more-than-it hurts-you, while at the same time suggesting the CEO has automatically made the right choice — the non-firing option would be even worse.
Having dropped this bombshell, Mr Nadella swiftly reverts to upbeat for his closing rallying cry: “I really do believe that we can achieve magical things when we come together as one team and focus.”
I, on the other hand, really do believe that magic is best left to Harry Potter and coming together as one team of 120,000 is impossible, especially when planning to take an axe to part of it.