When Microsoft tapped Satya Nadella as its third CEO, it turned to an engineering executive and company insider. He takes over at a critical time, as Microsoft grapples with both strategic and cultural challenges. In his first interview as CEO, Nadella spoke to The New York Times about leadership lessons and fostering innovation. Excerpts.
What leadership lessons have you learned from Steve Ballmer?
It happened two or three annual reviews ago. I asked him: “What do you think? How am I doing?” He said: “Look, you will know it, I will know it, and it will be in the air. So you don’t have to ask me. At your level, it’s going to be fairly implicit.”
I went on to ask, “How do I compare to the people who had my role before me?” And Steve said: “Who cares? The context is so different. I want you to stay focused on that, versus trying to do this comparative benchmark.” The lesson was that you have to stay grounded and be brutally honest with yourself on where you stand.
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And what about Bill Gates?
Bill is the most analytically rigorous person. In the first five seconds of a meeting he’ll find some logical flaw in something I’ve shown him. But he’s quite grounded. You can push back on him. He’ll argue with you, and then he’ll be the first person to say, “Oh, you’re right.”
There’s lot of curiosity around what kind of role Bill will play.
We’ve worked closely for nine years now. So I’m very comfortable with this. One of the fantastic things that only Bill can do is to get everybody energised to bring their A-game.
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What were some early leadership lessons for you?
I played on my school’s cricket team. I was a bowler and was throwing very ordinary stuff one day. So the captain took over from me and got the team a breakthrough, and then he let me take over again. I went on to take more wickets after that. It was an important leadership lesson. Leaders have to bolster the confidence of the people they are leading.
Tell me about your management approach in your new role.
It is about getting people to commit and engage in an authentic way, and for us to feel that energy as a team.
Microsoft has said that it needs to create much more of a unified “one Microsoft” culture. How are you going to do that?
Culturally, I think we have operated as if we had the formula figured out, and it was all about optimising the formula. Now it is about discovering the new formula. Leadership has to lean in and not let things die on the vine. When you have a $70-billion business, something that’s $1 million can feel irrelevant. But that $1 million business might be the most relevant thing we are doing.
To me, that is the big culture change — recognising innovation and fostering its growth.
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How are you going to approach your new role?
Longevity in this business is about being able to reinvent yourself or invent the future. In our case, given 39 years of success, it’s more about reinvention. We’ve had great successes, but our future is not about our past success. Whether we will invent things is what is going to drive our future.