ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Well, now an inside look at another tech giant - Microsoft. CEO Satya Nadella has written a new book called "Hit Refresh," as in when you reload a web page. Nadella doesn't focus the book, as you might expect, on his journey from middle-class India to the corner office of a major tech company. Instead, he explores at length something that he's trying to cultivate in himself - empathy. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: When I say that Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon are among the five to 10 largest companies on earth, it typically comes as no surprise. But when I say Microsoft is, too, that surprises people. I share this observation with CEO Satya Nadella and - this is telling - he manages to turn it into a compliment.
SATYA NADELLA: I mean, at some level, Microsoft is so ingrained in how the world economy works. It's different than some of the other consumer brands out there.
SHAHANI: He could have been combative, defensive. Nadella is a company man. Now 50 years old, he's been at Microsoft more than half his life. But that's not his style. He's more the quiet, confident type, the guy who never raises his voice or interrupts others and who makes points playfully. When critics said Microsoft had grown into a fat bureaucracy, Nadella hopped onstage at a major tech conference with an Apple iPhone in his hand to show off all the great Microsoft software in it. The point - everyone, even the so-called competition, relies on his brand.
NADELLA: Oh, yeah. I mean, supporting actor role in a world that is increasingly digital is a very comfortable position to be in.
SHAHANI: That said, he does acknowledge that the culture of Microsoft went downhill. By the time he became CEO in 2014, very smart people had turned very resentful, unmotivated. What Nadella explores in his book is how he's had to work on himself, his capacity for empathy, to change that. Despite the wonky title, "Hit Refresh" is actually a meditation on the soul, his and his company's. And he starts with a very personal confession about the birth of his first child.
NADELLA: I was 29 when Zain was born.
SHAHANI: While in the womb, Zain got strangled by his own umbilical cord. Doctors had to do an emergency C-section. Just hours earlier, Nadella and his wife, Anu, like any new parents, were worried about the usual.
NADELLA: Are we going to have his room and nursery ready? Will - how's Anu going to get back to her architectural job that she just started? All of those concerns. Except our life changed.
SHAHANI: Zain was born 3 pounds and with cerebral palsy. And here is what Nadella admits - while his wife stepped up, he didn't.
NADELLA: Quite honestly, in the - my first reaction was more about, how could this happen to us? And it is only by watching her - it is not as if even she was trying to in some sense school me on it - that I was able to perhaps come to that realization.
SHAHANI: The realization that it wasn't about him. It was about a newborn fighting to survive. And it was Nadella's job to help. This ability to empathize becomes key as he looks at those Microsoft workers who are pointing fingers. His natural reflex, he says, is to judge them, to be annoyed. But then he pulls back and remembers they're complaining because they're hungry to do more. And it's his job to give them hope.
NADELLA: Those are all things that I've grown in. I mean, I don't think that this was all sort of some innate thing that I had.
SHAHANI: Still, he's made some very hard, even cold calls. When Nadella decided Microsoft can't beat Apple or Samsung at making smartphones, he axed his 18,000 employees working on it. How does a man who practices empathy explain that?
NADELLA: I was thinking about the 100,000 people who work at Microsoft and how the future of this company would be jeopardized if I didn't pick right.
SHAHANI: CEOs don't typically write books about turning around their companies while they're still doing it. That's exactly what Nadella's done. And in page after page of "Hit Refresh," he reflects deeply on the emotional and intellectual reasoning behind his hard choices. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAMIEN RICE SONG, "VOLCANO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.