The story of Satya Nadella, 51 years old, 25 of which spent with Microsoft, the company of which he is now the CEO, is the story of an American dream. He is the outsider that has rewritten the history of the company that created the PC.
Born and raised in India in a middle-class family (his father was a public official and his mother an expert on Sanskrit), after graduating in electronic engineering at the University of Mangalore, Nadella came to the United States for a master’s in “computer science” at the University of Wisconsin: «I had always known that I wanted to make things», he said.
He arrived at Microsoft in ’92 and here started his slow difficult climb to the top. «At first there was just a group of Indian immigrants working like mad», recalled Sanjay Parthasarathy, former colleague of Nadella and now one of the most important CEOs in Silicon Valley, who shares the same background with the number one of Microsoft. «There were about thirty of us from India and we were doing everything to make out contribution», but Nadella was already standing out from the others. After working all week Satya flew to Chicago on Friday evenings to attend an MBA course. «His dedication has always astonished me», said Parthasarathy.
Dedication and determination: these are the cardinal points that helped the former outsider to reach the top. It took twenty years but in the end, thanks to his guidance, the company has taken off again.
The value that I really learned to appreciate deeply and which I talk about a great deal is empathy.
In fact it is to him that the regained prestige of the company founded by e Bill Gates is owed, the company Nadella took control of at the most difficult time, that 2014 when it seemed that nothing could have raised it from the perennial second position behind Apple and consequently an inevitable decline.
Since the time of his appointment however, Microsoft has doubled its value from 302.2 billion dollars to 681.6 billion dollars, a result so phenomenal as to win him the title of “CEO of the year” according to Forbes and to transform Nadella into the unquestionable guru of business management. And if you ask this man with the air of a youngster and always smiling what the secret of his success is, he says that the key to everything is “empathy”, because nothing is more effective and fruitful, according to the number one of Microsoft, than the ability to walk in the shoes of others.
Empathy is the key to innovation
“The value that I really learned to appreciate deeply and which I talk about a great deal is empathy. I don’t think it is simply a “nice to have” but I believe it is at the centre of the agenda for innovation here at Microsoft”, he said in an interview. «Our core business is connected with the customers’ needs and we will not be able to satisfy them if we don’t have a deep sense of empathy». And yet Nadella himself, in his last book entitled Hit Refresh, says that he has not always been a champion in this area, a shortfall that almost cost him his career.
At the first interview at Microsoft, when he was barely 25 years old, the famous Richard Tait, mega manager of the company, asked him: “Imagine that you see a child who has fallen on the ground and is crying, what do you do?”, «I replied thinking that this was a trick question», he explained. «Perhaps there was some algorithm that I did not understand, so I replied: “I call 118”, the interviewer accompanied me outside: “That is a ridiculous answer, if you see a child who has had a fall and is crying you help him get up and console him”. You need to develop a little empathy, my friend!»
It was a piece of advice that Nadella took literally, after managing to get the job in spite of the blunder. «Empathy is a muscle, so it needs to be exercised», he said, explaining that what helped him in this area was his numerous personal challenges, first the difficulties in obtaining a green card in the United States, then the building of a new life for himself and his three children, two of whom are disabled.
«It wasn’t easy», he said, talking about his story of migration, beset with bureaucratic problems which were not easy to overcome even for a prodigy like him. «When I finally managed to get my green card I had to refuse it and apply again for a work permit. It was the only way to bring my wife, who was still living in India, with me», explained Nadella, «I couldn’t leave her behind. The official at the consulate looked at me as if I was mad to give up my green card. However, I knew it was the right thing to do».
One of the experiences that the number one of Microsoft believes that contributed more than anything to strengthening his sense of empathy was also the fact of being a parent. The first child, born when Nadella and his wife were respectively 25 and 29 years old, suffers from cerebral paralysis which prevents him from speaking and moving his limbs.
«At first I did nothing but ask myself: “Why did this happen to me?”, then I began to understand that absolutely nothing had happened to me. In reality this thing had happened to my son and for me it was time to try and see life through his eyes and to do what I was supposed to, as a parent and a father», he explained, recalling that «most people think that empathy is something you have only with friends and the family, but in reality it is also a priority in business».
Listen more, speak less and be decisive when the time comes.
The art of listening
And the most important lesson that Nadella says he has learned in recent years is connected precisely with empathy: the capacity to listen, an ability that has become the distinctive trait of his leadership, is acknowledged by the employees and the market. «Listen more, talk less and be decisive when the time comes» has become a mantra at Microsoft.
In fact it is not by chance that one of his winning characteristics most acknowledged is in fact the ability to interpret situations and sense which new paths to follow. When Nadella arrived at the top of Microsoft he reversed course, opening the way to cooperation with other IT giants from the eternal competitor Apple to IBM, a strategy which at first no one would have ever thought possible and which turned out to be a key success factor. It was precisely with this in mind that one of his first actions as CEO, was to organise a series of very high profile acquisitions, including LinkedIn and Mojang, the video game company that produces the famous Minecraft, a video game that works not only with Android, but also with the historic competitor iOS. It was a revolutionary decision which, in fact, marked the beginning of the new phase of the colossus founded by Bill Gates: a phase of openness. An approach that rewarded many in the market, making the company shares rocket in value by 35%, the highest share price increase since its appearance in the stock market 31 years ago.
It is not just the shareholders that love Nadella. In the highly popular Glassdoor site, where employees in the hi-tech industry review companies, the CEO of Microsoft obtained an approval rating of 95%. In fact it seems that he managed to bring his art of listening also into the company, making it a genuine banner. «At Microsoft we concentrate on having a learning culture with an approach to growth that enables us to learn from ourselves and our customers», he explained.
Leadership does not mean opposing obstacles but overcoming them, guiding the entire team.
The leadership of the future
Many see him as a genuine orchestral conductor; he is acknowledged as having the ability to induce his 190 thousand employees, personages and professionals, all extremely diverse from each other, to pull in the same direction.
«It is our ability to work together that makes our dreams credible and attainable. The key to this cultural change lies in individual empowerment. We often underestimate what each of us can do and we overestimate what others can do for us. During a Q&A, an employee asked me: “why can’t I print documents from my mobile phone?”, I replied very politely “make it happen. You have the authority to do it”».
Taking the initiative is a characteristic that with the arrival of Nadella has become indispensable and which can be summarised as the so-called “growth mindset” according to which every person plays a key role in the works of the entire machine. A big change compared to the past and which has involved mainly the managers.
«I noticed that even at a high level people often complained without taking the initiative» and so Nadella brought together the 150 top executives of the company to put the record straight: «Once you get to the level of a vice-president or cover an extremely important position, you can’t complain any more. Being a leader in this company means finding rose petals in a sea of crap. Perhaps it is not my most poetic saying but it conveys the idea», he explained, recalling that «leadership does not mean opposing obstacles but overcoming them, guiding the entire team».
Assumption of responsibility and empowerment are therefore two key words for Nadella, to the point of having made “the ability to give power to people and organisations throughout the world” the new company mission.
It is important for leaders to be sensitive to the question of diversity.
«This means we have to include extremely diverse identities and cultures. This is why diversity is fundamental in our company». The first step, according to Nadella, is precisely in the selection of staff, but the commitment to ensuring diversity must be every day. «The subject of inclusion is a cultural aspect, it appears in very work encounter and I am personally involved. The question I always ask myself is how to hold a meeting so that everyone can make their best possible contribution? Because everyone has a personal style, we all come from different backgrounds, this is why it is important for the leaders to be sensitive to the question of diversity».
So empathy comes up again, as an indispensable leadership trait: «Without empathy it is not possible to get the best from your team, so for this reason it is the key to everything».