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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaking with GeekWire Editor Todd Bishop at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has brought something of a renaissance to the company. Although many see him as a new, innovative force at Microsoft, it turns out Nadella has learned a lot from his predecessors, former Microsoft CEOs Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

“I am a consummate insider,” Nadella said on stage during the 2017 GeekWire Summit. “I grew up in the company that Bill and Steve built. Everything that I’ve learned, everything about me has been shaped by the company I worked for — which is Microsoft — for now 25 years.”

When GeekWire Editor Todd Bishop asked Nadella to reflect back on the day he was named Microsoft’s next leader in 2014, Nadella said his mind was on continuing to pursue the purpose and culture that Gates and Ballmer had cultivated at the company — although not necessarily the specific products they championed.

Left to right: Past and present Microsoft CEOs Bill Gates, Satya Nadella and Steve Ballmer on the day Nadella was appointed to lead the company.

“The thing that I was thinking the most, and in particular based on all of the people around me that you see even in that photograph, is asking that existential question and being able to answer it for myself, which is: Why do we as a company exist?” Nadella said.

“I do believe companies exist for a reason. There needs to be a sense of purpose. If there’s going to be long-term success, you can’t be bound by one brand, one product, one technology,” he said, “because anything that you’ve started with won’t last forever.”

Microsoft has pivoted in several areas since Nadella took the helm. It has largely dropped its smartphone line and doubled down on evolving technologies like cloud computing, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

But the company’s sense of purpose has remained relatively steady. Nadella emphasized the point that a company’s purpose is never set or static but always moving. In fact, that was part of the inspiration behind his recent book, Hit Refresh.

“This entire book came about not as some kind of — we’ve reached any kind of destination, but as a sitting CEO going through that process, that hard process of transformation,” he said. “You will never, ever reach your destination. How do you keep hitting refresh and being smart about it?”

Even though Nadella said he’s learned a lot from Gates and Ballmer, he also said that, like any CEO, he has a unique leadership style that sets his tenure apart.

“Steve could do pretty much everybody’s job better than everybody, he had such immense intellectual horsepower, and I clearly don’t,” Nadella said.

Instead, he said, his strength is bringing people together and making a stellar team that can keep pursuing and defining that purpose.

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