Advice for Microsoft’s New CEO: Avoid Banality

Satya Nadella may not be the type of character the tech industry is used to, but doesn't have to be a rock star as he reinvents Microsoft's image

Satya Nadella Microsoft CEO

As Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella has a big decision to make. He must figure out whether he wants to have the kind of public persona that’s meant to connect with consumers or lead from the shadows where he’s operated for the past 22 years at the software giant.

There’s nothing wrong with either move as long as he avoids a third path that one too many digital players seems to be lazily embracing.

Nadella’s promotion comes as blandness has infiltrated the executive suites of major tech companies. With every new hire comes a step into safer territory that may keep shareholders and Wall Street happy, but stalls the kind of innovation the consumer electronics industry desperately needs right now.

To put it simply -— the characters have left the building.

There are fewer quirky nerds-turned-billionaires, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who command the media’s attention.

Tim Cook, who has taken a more elder statesman-like approach to the way he runs Apple, is a far cry from the arrogantly charming Steve Jobs. Meg Whitman has been all but silenced since she left eBay and took over Hewlett-Packard from the controversial Carly Fiorina (of course, being thrashed in the most recent California gubernatorial election tends to induce circumspection). And while Howard Stringer was a brash but charismatic Welshman who often made waves as the head of Sony, Kazuo Hirai is an example of cautious Japanese politeness.

There are some notable newcomers. Marissa Mayer has positioned herself as a rock star who has re-energized the conversation around Yahoo. But with every hire like Mayer, there are more like Cook in the kitchen at today’s tech giants.

Born in Hyderabad, India, Nadella, 46, is generally described as humble, analytical and open to ideas from his employees.

That could be a plus for Microsoft after years of dealing with hotheaded Steve Ballmer, who could erupt with various levels of emotion at any moment. But is a Mr. Nice Guy the kind of leader Microsoft needs right now?

An expert at mobile and cloud-based computing, Nadella, 46, must juggle making Windows and Office not only reliable but cool again, while growing the company’s Bing search engine, Surface line of tablets, smartphone business, and the Xbox Live and Xbox One brands.

Had the media had its choice, a leader at Ford Motor Co., Nokia or Skype would now be running Microsoft. Microsoft’s board of directors clearly believe otherwise.

Still, in an age of celebrity, can Nadella do his job without standing in the spotlight? The most successful tech execs can add emotion to their gadgets and make you want to buy the newest iPhone or iPad without understanding why that is. The best have proved to be the ones who feel as comfortable in front of the camera as they are behind a computer screen.

Microsoft needs that kind of cheerleader to turn it into the aspirational brand it wants to be.

But there is another way. If Nadella can articulate a vision internally at Microsoft that is so compelling that the products become the true star, he can avoid having to become the next rock-star-in-chief.

Samsung — which has been able to make its new smartphones, tablets and smart TVs highly desirable without a single notable figurehead to claim credit — is a clear example of that model. It’s the way Korean companies like to operate. And increasingly, that way of doing business is spreading to the U.S.

In that regard, there’s hope for Nadella and for Microsoft. “I’ve got a lot to learn,” Nadella said during a company webcast hours after landing the new role. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Microsoft, but there will be parts of Microsoft that are new to me.”

And outside of Microsoft, too, it turns out.