Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s leadership mantra is all about empathy

Life lessons.
Life lessons.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is obsessed with the idea of empathy.

“The value that I have learned to deeply appreciate and is something I talk a lot about is empathy,” said Nadella, 50, at an event to promote his recent book Hit Refresh in New Delhi on Nov. 07. The book, which chronicles Nadella’s personal and professional journey from growing up in Hyderabad to leading one of the world’s most iconic companies, is rife with instances that have helped him develop a sense of empathy both at work and outside.

The ability to understand and feel what others experience is critical to the work of technology giants like Microsoft, according to Nadella. ”I think of empathy as not just as something nice to have but (it) is core to (the) innovation agenda in the company,” he explained. “…one of the things that I’ve come to realise is, if I look at what is Microsoft’s core business, it is about being able to meet the unmet and unarticulated needs of customers and there is just no way we are going to be able to succeed in doing that if we don’t have that deep sense of empathy.”

Nadella joined Microsoft in 1992 and has since spent a quarter of a century working across functions at the company. In 2014, he took over as CEO at a time when the industry behemoth was being widely criticised for lack of innovation. Under Nadella’s watch, the company has transformed rapidly, shifting focus from the Windows business to newer technologies including cloud computing and artificial intelligence. In 2017 alone, Microsoft’s shares have jumped 35%, the highest in the company’s 31-year history of being a listed entity. Nadella has also brought about a more transparent and open work culture at the company, which employs over 190,000 people across the world.

In his personal life, too, Nadella acknowledges that challenges such as raising his three children (two have special needs) have pushed him to become more empathetic towards others—and be a better listener. These traits, in turn, have helped him grow as a leader. “One of the things when I reflect back and think ‘who am I as a leader?’, and it is a question I’ve asked myself more deeply as part of writing this book, it becomes clear that you are the culmination and combination of your own life experience, whether it is the team sport you play growing up, you as a parent or as a leader.”

Yet, Nadella admits that showing empathy doesn’t always come easily. It must be consciously cultivated and put into practice “Now, the challenge, though, is you can’t just say—I’ll go to work and turn on my empathy…,” he said. “I’m not even claiming that empathy is innate, it is something that needs to be developed…”