Insights from Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, speaking in London

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A very kind soul gifted me two tickets to hear Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, speak about his new book Hit Refresh, at a sold-out event. Satya argues in his book that as technology increases, the very human quality of empathy & being able to relate to each other will become increasingly valuable.

I attended with a friend; together, we are pretty clueless about artificial intelligence or quantum computing but figured we could ‘broaden our horizons.' I had decided beforehand to ask a question & got an opportunity to do so, after raising my hand a few times, pretty shamelessly.

Here are some things I learned & observed:

  • Satya was born in Hyderabad, India. I wondered if he still likes spicy food.

  • His father worked in the civil service and had Marxist leanings. His mother was a Sanskrit teacher. They didn’t agree on much including how to parent him, he said humorously, so he got away with a lot, including playing many hours of cricket - one of his passions.

  • The word 'empathy' was mentioned multiple times by him; I stopped counting at 10. He also said the word 'vulnerable' – Brene Brown would be over the moon! He said companies need to be great at listening to the unarticulated needs of their clients; Seth Godin says similar things. I approve.

The last question by the interviewer, tongue-in-cheek, was something like, 'Please can you explain Donald Trump to us?' which got the audience laughing. Satya took a long breath & gave a fairly diplomatic answer. He also said, “I attribute two things to America: amazing technological reach and history of an enlightened immigration policy”.

I particularly enjoyed the story of his first job interview with Microsoft, age 25, where at the end of an 8 hour grilling, focused mainly on mathematical algorithms, he was asked, "what would you do if a baby fell"? His response back then was ‘call 911’. The interviewer on his way out told him, if a baby falls, you pick the baby up. He realised that he didn't learn an empathy algorithm & although befuddled by this question, still got the job.

He attributed learning empathy to his life’s journey, including having his firstborn son, born prematurely with severe brain damage & cerebral palsy. He noticed that his wife, Anu, who he referred to as 'the real leader in the home' (who introduced him to NVC and other great books) was a natural at caring for his son taking him to therapy sessions and bonding with him. As an engineer, he had to work at this as it wasn't a natural skill.

My question to Satya was: Thank you for helping me settle a long-standing disagreement with my husband; my husband thinks NVC will never be 'mainstream'. Your mentioning it in interviews just helped shoot it up the Amazon bestseller lists, so thank you! What are your thoughts on NVC and business, did you have any pushback from your team when you suggested reading it?

Satya stated the reason for the success of the 'growth mindset' or  'NVC' inside the company. He felt people are drawing upon it because it gives them or inspires them to be a better partner, a better parent, a better colleague, a better leader and in fact, harmonises their life with work.

Regarding pushbacks, he said his attitude was: take it if it appeals to you, he didn't promote it as new dogma. He holds the view that people interpret things differently, we are shaped by our life experiences and respond differently at different stages of our life experience.  He observed how he was different at 50 than at 25; knowing that how he would have reacted to NVC at 25 would be different than it is now.

I am so glad I attended. None the wiser about artificial intelligence or quantum computing although I made mental notes to understand Cortana a bit more, after hearing Satya actually does use it as his digital PA. I feel high hopes to hear this consciousness towards diversity, empathy & caring about deeper human needs from a leader of a large global corporation.

Thank you, Trishna for the lovely gift – meeting needs for learning, inspiration and community!