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Lessons -- From Microsoft! -- On Being a Startup Leader

Be predictable (you heard that right) and three other insights learned from Satya Nadella

My life at Microsoft began in 2002 in the storage division, which was then a startup-like group within a massive, hierarchical business focused on selling servers and desktop computers.

Eventually this team became the cloud and datacenter group, where I was inspired by forward-thinking leaders like Satya Nadella. I was really impressed with Satya’s inclusive leadership style — the way he carried himself in front of his team and his customers — and it does not surprise me at all to read about him shaking things up at Microsoft by participating in earnings calls or pushing Microsoft to become more data-driven. His humility and vision are exactly what the company needs right now.

I left Microsoft in 2012 for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead product development at Apprenda, an enterprise-grade Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) provider based in upstate New York. We’re a lot smaller than Microsoft, but we’re growing insanely quickly. We also share similar goals with Microsoft; recently we announced a strategic collaboration with Microsoft Azure to provide a hybrid-cloud PaaS.

Although our heritage and structure are as different as night and day, I often dig into my memories of working at Microsoft to guide my leadership style at Apprenda. So far it seems to be working, since we have an enviably low turnover. Here are four tenets of leadership that I learned at Microsoft:

Be predictable: This may sound counterproductive, but it’s really not. At Microsoft, I learned that it feels great to be able to go into a meeting and feel like you know how your boss is going to react. You know what his priorities are, his passions and his temperament. Another way of saying this is to be authentic and genuine to everyone you talk to. The most effective leaders are those who act the same in front of 400 people as they do in front of one.

Know your blind spots: Like a lot of companies, Microsoft conducts 360-degree reviews, where you solicit a review from everyone surrounding the employee: Manager, peer, reports, etc. There are many best practices as to how to conduct an effective 360-degree review, but the effect is usually the same — you learn your blind spots. A successful leader pays attention to weaknesses and finds a way to manage them. It really helps to be self-aware, especially at a startup, where every member has a lot of responsibility.

A 360-degree review also adds visibility into how an employee achieves things, not just what he or she can achieve. Was he a jerk? Was she super-supportive? Who really did all the work? Good leaders make it a point to learn about the process, not just the outcome.

Be a mentor: When I was at Microsoft, there was an unspoken rule that before you could get promoted, you had to have already groomed someone else to take over your position. This created an ongoing, fundamental interest in developing people to become future leaders.

Startups don’t always think so far ahead. After all, when your staff is wearing multiple hats to ensure that goals are met and the job gets done, the focus is often on the immediate task at hand. Attrition is assumed, but it shouldn’t be. A lot of this is avoidable if managers take more of an interest in developing their colleagues’ careers from the start, and in setting them up for success. This way, you might be able to prevent a lot of the turnover that cripples performance-based startups.

Never get too comfy: As the media has reported, Satya’s leadership style breaks from the norm at Microsoft. He was always questioning longstanding traditions, like having quarterly check-ins when your product is shipping code every day. As a leader with a vision, you need to have this curious, almost contrarian side of you. He would often say that innovation doesn’t happen by doing the same thing all the time.

At startups, most leaders are worried about the immediate future, about shipping faster and raising capital. These are hugely important, but truly successful leaders act in a way that fosters long-term success.

Rakesh Malhotra is VP of product at Apprenda. Prior to joining Apprenda, he was at Microsoft for more than nine years, where he most recently was principal group program manager for cloud and data-center management and was among the one percent of employees nominated to Microsoft’s Corporate Leadership Bench Program. Previously, he was principal lead program manager for Microsoft’s Enterprise Storage Division. Reach him @Apprenda.

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