In his first interview since taking over as Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella talks of the company’s culture, his predecessors and cricket.
What leadership lessons have you learned from your predecessor, Steve Ballmer?
The most important one I learned from Steve happened two or three annual reviews ago. I sat down with him, and I remember asking him: “What do you think? How am I doing?” Then 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, ‘How am I doing?’ At your level, it’s going to be fairly implicit.”
I went on to ask him, “How do I compare to the people who had my role before me?” And Steve said: “Who cares? The context is so different. The only thing that matters to me is what you do with the cards you’ve been dealt now. 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 to be brutally honest with yourself on where you stand.
And what about Bill Gates?
Bill is the most analytically rigorous person. He’s always very well prepared, and in the first five seconds of a meeting he’ll find some logical flaw in something I’ve shown him. I’ll wonder, how can it be that I pour in all this energy and still I didn’t see something? In the beginning, I used to say, “I’m really intimidated by him.” But he’s actually quite grounded. You can push back on him. He’ll argue with you vigorously for a couple of minutes, and then he’ll be the first person to say, “Oh, you’re right.” Both Bill and Steve share this. They pressure-test you. They test your conviction.
What were some early leadership lessons for you?
I played on my school’s cricket team, and there was one incident that just was very stunning to me. I was a bowler and I 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 never asked him why he did that, but my impression is that he knew he would destroy my confidence if he didn’t put me back in. And I went on to take a lot more wickets after that. It was a subtle, important leadership lesson about when