Satya Nadella has now been CEO of Microsoft for a year. By all accounts it’s been a fantastically successful year, too.
While Wall Street is starting to get a little antsy about how he plans to make money on all the fancy new initiatives at Microsoft, the tech industry is pretty excited about his vision, his changes to Windows, and the cool things in the pipeline like HoloLens. Employees are just as excited about Nadella as the outside world is.
Above all, there’s one man really rooting for him: The guy that hired him. That’s not Bill Gates but Microsoft’s current chairman John Thompson, who led the Microsoft CEO search committee.
Thompson cut his teeth at IBM, and as CEO of Symantec grew that company from about $US600 million in revenue to about $US6 billion when he left in 2009. For the past five years he’s been CEO of startup Virtual Instruments, which is on track to hit $US100 million in revenue. (VI offers software that helps big companies keep their most important applications from going down.)
In a recent interview with Business Insider, Thompson told us what its like to be Nadella’s boss.
“My job at Microsoft has a unique dimension to it, which is that Satya [Nadella] is a young, first time CEO. I’ve been a CEO of a public tech company, so I do spend time with him on what I call mentoring-like things as opposed to board-like things,” he tells us.
“We generally talk every Sunday morning at 8 o’clock, and it generally has no agenda. It’s whatever the issue of the day or issue of the week might very well be,” he says. “I have enormous respect for the guy, and I want to do everything I can to help him and, quite frankly, to help Microsoft.”
In fact, those conversations are a two-way street. While Thompson is an expert at the huge corporate life, running a smaller startup — VI has less than 300 employees — is still a learning experience for him. He’s already had to manage the company through a pivot, help it narrow its focus, and figure out a sales strategy, including removing its founder-CEO from that role, he says.
Weekly mentoring talks with Nadella are “helpful to me because some of the things he’s doing are issues that I have to deal with at my little startup,” he tells us.
What kinds of things has Thompson mentored Nadella on?
Probably the most famous incident is a dinner in which more than a half-dozen well-known Valley CEOs were invited to meet and chat with Nadella immediately after he took over Microsoft.
“When Satya was appointed, one of the things that I said to him was that we should spend time trying building some bridges into the Valley, and that perhaps we could put together a small dinner gathering of Valley CEOs,” Thompson recalls.
Seattle-based Microsoft had spent its first 39 years ruthlessly competing with the companies in the Valley, and had a long list of vicious rivalries.
One of them was with Salesforce.com.
But Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, a long-time personal friend of Thompson, attended that dinner, as did Dropbox’s Drew Houston, Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen, eBay’s John Donahoe, and Seagate’s Steve Luzo, who was at that time a Microsoft board member.
Benioff later talked about how Thompson convinced him that Nadella was going to create a friendlier, less combative Microsoft.
And as the year progressed, Microsoft announced some bury-the-hatchet partnerships with some of the folks at that dinner like Salesforce.com and Dropbox (as well as new partnerships with other ancient enemies, like Oracle.) Nadella even let Benioff poach an employee without derailing their plans, as Benioff tells it.
“In this industry, we have to be mindful that ‘co-opetition’ is the rule of the day every day of the week. Just because you compete with someone on one front doesn’t mean that you can’t partner with them on another front, where it’s relevant and meaningful to both companies,” Thompson told us. “Satya clearly understands that and embraced the concept.”
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