Nadella had grown up professionally inside the firm. The India-born cricket enthusiast started working at Microsoft in 1992, when products were saved on disks and the world was powered by Windows 3.0. A computer scientist by training, he moved through a range of leadership roles, ultimately becoming Executive Vice-President of the Cloud & Enterprise group. Reflecting on important influences in his life, he said: “It’s the language, routines and mindset of my parents back in India and my family in Seattle that helped form me and still guide me today.” He traces the roots of his ideas about leadership to the birth of his first child, Zain, who has cerebral palsy. “We learned that empathy is essential to deal with problems everywhere, whether at Microsoft or at home; here in the United States or globally. That is also a mindset, a culture.” When he took over as CEO in 2014 he wrote a letter to all employees in which he spoke of focusing the company on its core values, but through a new lens, saying: “We need to prioritise innovation that is centred on our core value of empowering users and organisations to ‘do more’.”
He devoted much of his first year to listening and learning from others. In his words: “Employees wanted a CEO who would make crucial changes, but one who also respected the original ideals of Microsoft, which had always been to change the world. Engineers wanted to lead again, not follow. They wanted to up the coolness. We had technology the press would fawn over in Silicon Valley, such as leading-edge artificial intelligence, but we weren’t showing it off. What they really demanded was a road map to remove paralysis.”
His to-do list for the first year included preparing Microsoft for a mobile- and cloud-first world, building ‘new and surprising partnerships’ and working to ensure that they could truly empower every person on the planet, as their new mission stated. In the spring of 2014, despite a contentious historical rivalry with Apple and lack of traction with their own Windows phones, Microsoft made Office available on all iOS devices, including the iPhone and iPad. The next year, the global launch of Windows 10 originated in a tiny village in Kenya.
“Articulating our core raison d’être and business was a good first step. But I also needed to get the right people on the bus to join me in leading these changes,” Nadella said. He wanted a senior leadership team that would “lean into each other’s problems, promote dialogue and be effective… I don’t mean yes-men and yes-women. Debate and argument are essential. Improving upon each other’s ideas is crucial.”
Nadella selected Jill Tracie Nichols, Ballmer’s communications lead 2009–2014, as his chief of staff. He told her: “I’ve seen you work with others and you treat them well. You show respect. I want my office to be about the culture we are trying to create and not about power.” Peggy Johnson, a seasoned Qualcomm executive, became head of business development. Her job would be to forge ties with former Silicon Valley rivals, such as Dropbox. Kathleen Hogan would transition from leading Microsoft’s global consulting and support business to partnering with Nadella on leading the cultural transformation as chief people officer.
Kurt DelBene returned as chief strategy officer, Chris Capossela headed up marketing and Scott Guthrie, an engineer who had worked with Nadella in building the cloud business, would lead Cloud and Enterprise. “The senior leadership team needed to become a cohesive team that shared a common world view,” Nadella said.