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Microsoft’s CEO said he ‘never expected’ to land the top job—this is his best piece of career advice

When Satya Nadella walked through the doors of Microsoft’s Washington offices in 1992 he told himself, “This is the greatest job on earth. I don’t need anything more.”

Twenty-two years later, he was named CEO of the company.

Speaking to LinkedIn’s CEO Ryan Roslansky as part of its The Path video series, Nadella revealed that when he was growing up his focus wasn’t on his studies, but on cricket. His parents, his father a civil servant and his mother a Sanskrit professor, gave him the “room and confidence” to become his own person.

He went to university in India before studying in Wisconsin, landing a job with Silicon Valley stalwart Sun Microsystems after he graduated in 1990. It was a couple of years later in 1992 that he was offered a job at Microsoft.

Nadella, who has led the company since 2014, said he chose the Bill Gates–founded brand because it reflected a feeling of empowerment. Nadella said he remembered using a computer for the first time as a child: “The malleability of software was the thing that got me hooked. I won’t say I was one of those people who took it and said ‘That’s my future,’ but it was there, it was latent.”

Years later, Nadella says Microsoft offered echoes of the potential of computing he’d recognized as a child: “It’s that feeling of empowerment. I felt that I wanted to make sure that everyone else can feel that because of computing, that freedom you get to express yourself.”

Now a board member for the likes of Starbucks and the University of Chicago, as well as the chairman of the Business Council U.S., Nadella said there “was never a time where I thought the job I was doing—all throughout my 30 years at Microsoft—that somehow I was doing that as a way to some other job.

“I felt the job I was doing there was the most important thing, I genuinely felt it. And then of course it helped me get my next job.”

That feeling led Nadella to his best piece of career advice: “Don’t wait for your next job to do your best work. I think sometimes we define our jobs narrowly. One of the managers I worked for said: ‘Hey, what if you did a thought experiment and thought of your job not as your job but as my job, and what would you do?'”

As a result, he said, he started taking on some of the burden that was on his manager so that he was expanding his own role without having to wait for a promotion.

Rising through the ranks

Nadella, who was born in southern India, steadily worked his way up the ladder at Microsoft courtesy of this attitude. Having started out working on the development of Microsoft Windows NT, he then turned his talent to the organization’s business solutions team. In 2007 he was elevated to the role of senior vice president in research and development, before getting another boost five years later to become president of the server and tools business—worth $19 billion in revenue.

Among Nadella’s other achievements is acting as executive vice president for Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, which provided the infrastructure bedrock for services such as the Xbox Live gaming network, search engine Bing, and the subscription model for Office 365.

As CEO, Nadella was lauded for his attention on company culture. However, the business has faced criticism this year for announcing 10,000 layoffs the day after hosting a private Sting concert for its executives at Davos.

“Leadership is such a privilege,” he said. “Whenever you’re leading someone you don’t think of it as an entitlement, you should think of it as a privilege. The question is: How do you earn it?”

Leadership lessons

Leaders must always aim to bring clarity to confusing or ambiguous situations, Nadella said: “However smart you are, if you come in and create more confusion at an already uncertain time, that’s not leadership.”

His second tip for bosses is to create energy so that people leaving conversations feel buoyed by the interaction they just had. And lastly, he said there’s no time for a perfect pitch or ideal conditions to perform in, explaining that it was the task of managers and the CEO to unconstrained teams and allow them to perform. He added no one was the “perfect” leader, but those questioning how they could have brought more clarity, energy, or freedom to their employees will always improve.

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