Microsoft’s Satya Nadella is CNN Business’ CEO of the Year

It was the year of artificial intelligence, and no Big Tech company leaned into the trend like Microsoft.

In 2023, the company’s CEO Satya Nadella made a multi-billion dollar investment in AI, commercialized and added AI tools like ChatGPT into its suite of products before rivals, and stunned industry onlookers with his ability to handle a crisis quickly, calmly and thoughtfully.

Under his leadership, the company is re-emerging as a tech innovator after years of riding the success of Windows. Wall Street has noticed, too: Microsoft’s stock is up 55% this year.

That’s why CNN Business’ staff chose Nadella as the CEO of the Year, beating out other contenders including Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang.

“There’s no question 2023 was the year of AI,” Nadella told CNN in an emailed response. “We’re no longer just talking about innovation in the abstract; we’re seeing real product-making, deployment and productivity gains. At the end of the day, though, this innovation will only be useful if it’s empowering all of us in our careers, in our communities, in our countries.”

Since 2018, the CNN Business’ team of writers and editors have met at the end of each year to select one person whose executive performance stood out. The process is admittedly subjective — we choose someone based on criteria that shifts year to year.

Maybe the company’s stock outperformed its rivals. Maybe the CEO righted the ship after a messy product launch or the company developed a lifesaving vaccine that altered the course of human history (tip of that hat to 2021’s CEO of the Year, Pfizer’s Albert Bourla).

This year’s CEO of the Year is once again a man, indicative of a larger representative problem in corporate America’s top positions. About 10% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women, according to Fortune. But our aim has never been to endorse any one executive over another. Rather, we hold a mirror up to the business world and tell a story about what we see. (We also considered non-CEO leaders, and chose Taylor Swift as our business leader of the year.)

For 2023, Nadella’s decisions have heavily impacted and influenced the direction of AI, the most significant innovation to come from Silicon Valley in decades.

As Gil Luria, a senior research analyst at wealth management firm DA Davidson, puts it: “His ability to steer the aircraft carrier that is Microsoft into this new era has been nothing short of remarkable.”

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MARCH 19: A Microsoft sign is seen at the company's headquarters on March 19, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by I RYU/VCG via Getty Images)

A Microsoft sign at the company’s headquarters on March 19, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by I RYU/VCG via Getty Images)I Ryu/VCG/Getty Images

Changing the narrative

Nadella’s background doesn’t entirely fit the Ivy League dropout archetype of Silicon Valley. Born in India, Nadella came to the US in the late 1980s to pursue a master’s in computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, later receiving an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Nadella’s standout performance is a culmination of his work from prior years. He joined the company in 1992 as an engineer, at a time Microsoft was characterized by regulators as a monopoly.

When he was promoted to CEO nearly 10 years ago, Microsoft had developed a reputation for being slow to adapt to major trends, such as mobile. Fast forward to now and tech companies are lining up to partner with Microsoft and align with its mission to commercialize artificial intelligence for the masses.

In Nadella’s 2017 book, “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone,” he wrote about his experience reworking everything internally, team by team and product by product, so Microsoft would be better set up for employees to collaborate with others.

He also worked to soften and revitalize Microsoft’s image. As far back as 2016, the company partnered with OpenAI — a then-emerging company with new AI tools — and allowed them to operate the technology on its Azure cloud servers in exchange for access to those tools.

But after a massive $13 billion investment in OpenAI earlier this year, following the viral launch of ChatGPT in November 2022, Microsoft rolled out AI-powered versions of its flagship products, such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel, breathing new life into otherwise dulled software. Nadella’s push to commercialize these tools quickly gave it a head start against competitors such as Google and Amazon, who were working on similar technologies, and helped ignite an arms race across the industry.

Now as more companies, from Instacart to Snapchat, add ChatGPT and other OpenAI technologies to their own services, Microsoft’s cloud business is poised for deeper growth. Microsoft has reported strong Azure growth over the last three quarters.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 06: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (R) speaks as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (L) looks on during the OpenAI DevDay event on November 06, 2023 in San Francisco, California. Altman delivered the keynote address at the first ever Open AI DevDay conference. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (R) speaks as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (L) looks on during the OpenAI DevDay event on November 06, 2023 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nadella’s remarkable moment

While Nadella had an impressive year across the board, his leadership shined even brighter during the string of events that followed the surprising ousting of OpenAI’s Altman, the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving week.

The timing was noteworthy too: Just four days before, Nadella joined Altman on stage at OpenAI’s first developer conference to discuss the future of artificial intelligence and their partnership together.

The executives represented one of the most dynamic and key relationships in the tech industry, not only of the year but in years: Altman had clearly emerged as the face of the generative AI movement, and Nadella was one of the most powerful tech leaders funding the development of these tools.

“You guys have built something magical,” said Nadella at the time. “It’s been fantastic for us.”

But despite his long-standing relationship with OpenAI, Nadella reportedly found out about Altman’s removal from the company “just before” OpenAI released a statement, rendering Microsoft with no control over the situation.

The company in a statement said an internal investigation found that Altman was not always truthful with the board.

Microsoft’s stock sank in response, perhaps because OpenAI was to serve as a linchpin to their plans to expand AI across its products. “It was not a good look for Microsoft,” Luria said.

Nadella swiftly picked up the phone and offered to hire Altman at Microsoft to lead a new AI research lab, along with one of the co-founders, Greg Brockman, and any of the 700 Open AI employees who wanted to leave the company.

He also spoke to some OpenAI board members — the people who initially kept him out of the loop — and was able to get them on board with a solution that would be favorable to Microsoft, according to Luria.

Altman ultimately returned to OpenAI, with a new board intact.

“He turned what looked like a bad and embarrassing situation into a way to improve Microsoft’s standing with this very important partner,” Luria added. “What we saw from Mr. Nadella is an interpersonal skill you don’t always find with CEOs, who can be visionaries and luminaries and great at product, but aren’t necessarily able to pick up a phone, talk to people and get them to see things your way.”

As Fred Havemeyer, a senior enterprise software analyst at the Macquarie financial services firm, said in a letter to investors, “Mr. Nadella may have pulled off his own coup, acquiring the most important part of OpenAI — its ambitious talent.”

By Monday morning, Microsoft was in better shape than they were a week before. Its stock reached a record that day; shares rose 2.1% to an all-time high close of $377.44, beating the previous record of $376.17.

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