Satya Nadella’s symbolic debut

(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

Satya Nadella made his public debut Thursday as Microsoft's CEO, appearing  in San Francisco at his first press conference. Fifty-two days into his tenure — though "who's counting?"Nadella quipped — the new CEO laid out his strategy for the company, a technology giant trying to find its way in a mobile world that has long since moved beyond the Windows operating system.

In many ways, Nadella's first public moment on stage was a break from past Microsoft leadership. Dressed in a slim fitting polo shirt and a pair of jeans, Nadella cut quite a different figure than his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, who favored more traditional business attire. He quoted T.S. Eliot ("you should never cease from exploration and at the end of all exploring you arrive where you started and know the place for the very first time") and made geeky jokes — a far cry from some of Ballmer's more memorable onstage moments.

And as part of the strategy he laid out for mobile and cloud computing, he announced the first Office app for iPad, signaling an obvious departure from the company's Windows-centric past.

This was not a surprise. Ballmer had said it would be released eventually, and Microsoft already has a version for the iPhone. But by choosing his public debut as the moment to make that announcement, he created a powerful symbol for where he plans to take the company.

Many seemed to take notice. "MSFT appears to be entering a new era of 'glasnost' and 'perestroika' under the leadership of Nadella," wrote technology analyst Richard Edwards on Twitter. "Let's see how the momentum builds." Following the press conference, Tuck School of Business professor Sydney Finkelstein wrote on Twitter: "finally, a $MSFT CEO who has creativity and humility. It's been a long time coming."

Nadella could have simply gotten up and talked about cloud computing or his strategy for a more open approach. But by specifically announcing the release of Office for the iPad — even if it means cutting into sales of Microsoft's own tablets and devices — he is sending both a credible and memorable signal as Microsoft's leader that things are going to be different.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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