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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on why empathy is essential for technology innovation

Speaking at the London launch of his Hit Refresh book, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella revealed how a shortfall in empathy nearly cost him a job at the firm in the 1990s

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said an empathy misjudgement could have stopped him securing his first job at the corporation back in the 1990s, while detailing the steps he has taken to make it more supportive and collaborative place to work since becoming CEO.

Speaking at a Q&A to discuss the launch of his Hit Refresh book, on Friday 29 September, Nadella outlined the work that has gone into transforming Microsoft’s business culture since he took over the reins of the company from Steve Ballmer in 2014.

These include getting its leadership teams to appreciate the value of mindfulness, and introducing its leadership team to the concept of using “non-violent communications” when offering feedback on other people’s ideas.

“Our culture at Microsoft was such that we used to go to this class that was called Precision Question, and the idea was to destroy anybody’s idea in the first five minutes by asking these highly precise, analytical questions that would disrupt the speakers’ hypothesis,” he said.

“It was a very useful analytical tool to have, except it was being used as an instrument of offence.

“This is one of the reasons why I said, if we want to be an effective leadership team, we will have to practice this non-violent communication,” said Nadella.

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When he originally joined the company in 1992, it seems empathy is a concept Nadella could have used a little coaching on himself, when a question – at the end of his eight-hour interview to join Microsoft – a he would react to seeing a baby crying in the street left him stumped.

“I thought about it for a couple minutes, and came up with this brilliant answer – or so I thought – which was to call 911,” he said.

“He [the interviewer] gets up, walks me out and says, ‘when you see a baby on the street that’s fallen down, pick them up and hug them’, so I thought I’d absolutely blown it and that was the end of it. But I did subsequently get the job.”

Over the years, he has grown to appreciate the importance of empathy in driving innovation and ensuring the products it gives rise to meet the “unmet and unarticulated” needs of its customers.

“You can’t go work and say, ‘let me switch on that empathy button and be great at business’, and that’s why I think life experiences and learning from it and being able to translate that into work is the way to think about harmonising what is most important to us as humans, what is most important to us as organisations trying to create value and perhaps even as societies trying to adapt to change,” he said.

A change in strategy

In the run up to his appointment as CEO, the company was losing ground to its competitors in the mobility space, as its forays into the smartphone hardware and operating system space were greeted with indifference by consumers.

Its attempt to make its flagship desktop operating system more tablet-friendly, with the release of Windows 8 in late 2012, also saw the firm come under fire from users who took issue with the firm’s decision to get rid of the Start button functionality, among other things.

Nadella admits, when he took over the reins of Microsoft, the company’s statement of intent was far less defined compared to when he first joined in 1992, when its goal was to ensure there was a PC in every home within the developed world.

Redefining company strategy

When it came redefining the company’s strategy, Nadella initially started out (around five weeks into his tenure as CEO) by stating Microsoft would be pursuing a “mobile-first and cloud-first innovation agenda”.

The mobile portion of this strategy, at least, now appears to have been put to one side, with the company’s most recent annual report focusing on the work the company is doing to create “intelligence cloud” services with the help of artificial intelligence.

This, in turn, feeds into Microsoft’s overarching aim to “empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more”, with Nadella going on to discuss the importance of embracing diversity in achieving this.

After all, how can the organisation ever hope to “empower everyone” if its workforce and senior leadership teams are unrepresentative of the world at large, he said.

Microsoft working towards gender equality

The company’s UK leadership team is 50% female, which Nadella said the company would like to replicate in other territories, but he admits the company still has some work to do on this front.

And to ensure it gets done, he revealed the company’s senior management team are compensated to reflect any “tangible progress” made.

“We have a long way to go. In tech, especially when it comes to gender, we have a real challenge and we have to push to make sure [people want to join Microsoft] and we get to more of an equal representation,” he said.

“But also are they able succeed inside of Microsoft? That all comes down to culture, so we are continuing to push this significantly.”

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