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Leadership Lessons From Microsoft's Satya Nadella

The software giant's new CEO talks about his priorities for changing the company's culture--as well as an important lesson he learned from a kid on his school's cricket team.

Satya Nadella started his new role as CEO at Microsoft early this month with a promise to "change the world through technology." Although it's way too early to see if he will succeed in achieving that lofty goal, it's not too early to hear about the business philosophies that will guide his effort.

During his first interview as CEO, talking with The New York Times on Thursday, Nadella dished out some leadership tips based on his 22 years of experience at Microsoft. Here are three nuggets from the new man in charge in Redmond that can help you lead your own company.

Stay focused on the cards you've been dealt.

Nadella tells the Times that during a performance review one year, he asked former CEO Steve Ballmer how he (Nadella) compared to his predecessors. Ballmer's answer was, "'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,'" Nadella recounts. "'I want you to stay focused on that, versus trying to do this comparative benchmark.'" Although Nadella wanted a straight answer, he tells the Times that Ballmer's response impressed a larger point on him: "The lesson was that you have to stay grounded, and to be brutally honest with yourself on where you stand."

Know when your team needs a confidence boost.

The CEO says he received one of his earliest leadership lessons during a school cricket match. He wasn't playing his best, so the team captain took his place for a while until their team started faring better. Nadella then was put back in to finish the match. "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," Nadella says. "And I went on to take a lot more wickets after that. It was a subtle, important leadership lesson about when to intervene and when to build the confidence of the team. I think that is perhaps the No. 1 thing that leaders have to do: to bolster the confidence of the people you're leading."

Innovation trumps institutional structures.

Nadella has a mandate to effect a change in culture at Microsoft. But what is the right mindset to try to develop throughout an organization that employs more than 100,000 people? Nadella says the top priority should be "recognizing innovation and fostering its growth." Making that happen is "not going to come because of an org chart or the organizational boundaries," he says. "Most people have a very strong sense of organizational ownership, but I think what people have to own is an innovation agenda, and everything is shared in terms of the implementation."

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Last updated: Feb 21, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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