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The most important leadership lesson Microsoft’s new CEO learned from Bill Gates

Bill Gates leaves after speaking at a breakfast meeting in Oslo
Reuters/Gorm Kallesrad/NTB Scanpix
A vigorous challenger of ideas.
By Max Nisen
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Satya Nadella is only the third CEO in Microsoft’s history, and personally requested that co-founder Bill Gates put much more time in at the company to help him. In a Q&A with Adam Bryant at the New York Times (paywall), Nadella’s first since getting the job, he revealed the most important leadership lesson he’s learned from 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.

Gates is going to be able to pick an idea apart better than most—but every big idea benefits from another person prodding at it before it becomes part of a company’s strategy.

Nadella’s answer also gives a sense of what Gates’ new role will be, which is likely to apply analytical rigor to the stream of new product ideas that pop up in a roughly 100,000-person company. Also, Nadella says, Gates has a unique ability to energize employees.

Nadella also shared the one thing that drives him the craziest as a leader. It’s when an outsider comes in and says “this is how we used to do it,” or someone inside the company says “this is how we do it.” Both, he says, are dangerous traps that lower standards and make companies worse at responding to their current challenges.

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