New Microsoft CEO's Collegial Style Sparks Hope

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AP-US-Microsoft-CEBy Ryan Nakashima

LOS ANGELES -- It was a fleeting moment once the camera had gone off, but some say it's indicative of the leadership style Satya Nadella brings to his new job as CEO of Microsoft Corp.

Nadella's impromptu town hall webcast had interrupted business meetings among Microsoft employees and outside partners at the company's Executive Briefing Center in Redmond, Wash. Hours earlier, he had been named only the third leader in company history. When the brief webcast was over, he didn't want to hog the limelight.

"If you have to get back to [a meeting] because it's more interesting or important, please ...," Nadella said as the town hall transitioned into a light reception.

The gesture is just one example of Nadella's calming, collegial style, which stands in stark contrast to the blustery, passionate, rally-the-troops approach employed by Microsoft's previous CEO, Steve Ballmer.

Experts on leadership say the change in tone is a necessary cultural shift for a mature company transitioning into new businesses while letting go of past successes and missed opportunities.

"It's very symbolic," said Suresh Kotha, a professor at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business in Seattle. "I think that sends a very strong message, that work is important."

"He's saying 'I'm here to help you, I'm humble, I'm willing to listen,' " Kotha said. "Symbolically, I think it's very important to see he's separating himself from Steve Ballmer."

Ballmer is known for his larger-than-life displays of emotion. At his farewell address to Microsoft employees in September, he high-fived and hugged audience members, pumped his fists in the air, and even shed tears as the popular 1987 song "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" played on the sound system. In a video of the event widely viewed on YouTube, he screams: "You work for the greatest company in the world!"

Observers still remember Ballmer's intense competitiveness. At a 2009 company meeting at Seattle's Safeco field, he pretended to stomp on an iPhone he snatched from a Microsoft employee. During a public Q&A in 2012, he slammed Google's Android mobile operating system as "wild" and "uncontrolled."

Compare that to Nadella's comments at a financial analysts' meeting in September, where he described how Microsoft's mobile device management software has to handle devices that run on Apple's iOS, Google's Android and Microsoft's Windows equally: "Enterprises are heterogeneous, and we recognized that," he said.

Richard Metheny, a management coach for executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, latched on to comments Nadella made in introducing himself as CEO, about how he buys more books and signs up for more online courses than he could possibly finish.

"It means he's open to ideas, open to others," Metheny said. "Perhaps he'll have the ability to get Microsoft to loosen up a little and focus on innovation rather than be accused of bringing in a solution that brings in money immediately."