Ideas Excite Me, Empathy Grounds Me
8 min read

How Satya Nadella’s story has inspired us, as business humanizers.

“Ideas excite me, empathy grounds me ”

These are the words of Satya Nadella. They are very humbling words from Microsoft‘s CEO one of the biggest companies in the world. Satya is an outspoken empathy advocate, his personal passion and philosophy is to connect new ideas with a growing sense of empathy for other people.

For us, as business humanizers and B-Corp leaders, the story of Satya and of the transformation of Microsoft very much serves as a source of inspiration. In his “Hit Refresh, the quest to rediscover Microsoft’s soul and imagine a better future for everyone”,  Satya shares some valuable learning for anyone who wants to lead with purpose and pride. I want to extract some strategies and practices from his story that can serve us as leaders and change agents. I have taken on a changemaster lens to distill some learnings.   

Empathy is a behavior

There is a lot of discussion going on around empathy: is it a good thing, or is it a bad thing? Some people claim it clouds judgment or makes us poor decision makers. Others claim it sparks our emotions and makes us do more good more often. Some tend to amplify the cognitive side of empathy and others the affective side of it.

What I like about how Satya views empathy, is that he looks at empathy as a vital behavior that organizations can adopt to be more effective, daring, caring, and innovative. He views empathy as having been the vital key to the transformation and renewed success of Microsoft.  We all know empathy as a behavior is simple, but we also know empathy is difficult to apply in the business context. Empathy is about seeing the world through other people’s eyes and striving to deeply understand them. The challenge is how to do this in an environment that is strongly efficiency driven.

Like any good changemaster, Satya is practical about empathy. He provides us with some valuable lessons and strategies on how to adopt ’empathy behaviors’ at scale. Like most changemasters he applies diverse strategies for adopting empathy. Here are some of the influencing strategies he used in the context of transforming Microsoft.

  1. Let people bring more of themselves to work

When Satya started his tenure as CEO of Microsoft he had realized very quickly that there were many people in his leadership team he admired. What was missing was a deep understanding of them on a human level. He started asking himself questions like, what made these people tick? How do these people bring more of themselves to work? How do these people connect their personal passions and philosophies to a broader organizational purpose of Microsoft?

In short: He started practicing empathy with the people he worked with every day. People he counted on the most to help make change happen in Microsoft. He has a strong conviction that we all spend far too much time at work for it not to have deep meaning. He believes that if we can connect what we stand for as individuals with what a company is capable of doing, there is very little that we can’t accomplish. He created the context and space where people could share their stories, their passions, and struggles.

He points out that as experts we can easily look smart and in control. But life and our human struggles are the great equalizers and common fertile grounds when developing empathy fitness. They enable us to become more accepting, or even comfortable, with impermanence.

We at Innate motion would call this creating more value people to people. We have designed many immersion programs’ for people to have more human conversations with the people they work with or the people they serve in ways that enable these people(all parties taking part in the conversation) to bring more of themselves to the table. The simple message here is that the empathy fitness of an organization grows when we create enough space and safety for people to share their story and discover the stories of others. Stories that are told on the common human level. Stories that enable to bring our whole selves to the table and not just our expert rational selves.

2. Make empathy a means to empowerment

What Satya also understood is that empathy-behaviors are more motivating when they are attached to the idea of empowerment. Certainly in the American context. Most people come to Microsoft because they love technology and they believe their work can make a difference. Under Satya’s guidance, the mission of Microsoft evolved to creating digital platforms upon which individuals and organizations can build their own dreams. He invites everyone to do so with a sense of empathy and a desire for empowerment.

3. Lead with empathy

Satya makes empathy more valuable because he shares it, applies it and lets people understand that in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo evermore, empathy is vital. Satya motivates and leads with empathy, recognizing that empathy transformations work best when no one leader, no one group, and no one CEO makes it happen. It happens when it is driven by people who together value empathy and apply it.  

Like Satya we have all had our moments of epiphany when it comes to empathy. It is key to treasure this moment, not just for our private life, but for our business life, too.

Satya himself learned empathy in a deeply personal way a few years after his son Zain was born. His son would require a wheelchair and be reliant on others to care for him because of severe cerebral palsy. He was devastated. But mostly he was sad for how things turned out for himself and his wife Anu. Thankfully he credits his wife for helping him understand it was not about what happened to him or his wife that mattered most. It was about deeply understanding what had happened to Zain, and developing empathy for his pain and his circumstances while accepting his responsibility as his parent. Satya considers himself lucky to have had experiences that have helped him build a growing sense of empathy for an ever-widening circle of people. He has empathy for people with disabilities. He has empathy for people trying to make a living from the inner cities and Rust Belt to the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Satya leads by sharing stories of how empathy has inspired him at work and encouraging others to do the same. For him, leading with empathy means inviting everyone to listen more and talk less. It means focusing your attention to where you can make the biggest difference in line with your mission and culture rather than where you can get the most attention and media coverage.

  1. Make empathy part of people’s normal business practices

Empathy is a force that can help pop social bubbles and bust rigid silos of expertise. It’s what all innovative companies need to do, certainly once they become too successful. Having empathy for an ever wider group of people makes you value diversity more. Luckily empathy becomes easier to adopt when we can make it part of people’s normal social habits and conventions and when we can integrate empathy into our standard business practices.

How can you make it part of the marketing process, the customer experience journey, the decision making process?

Satya tried to put empathy at the center of everything he pursues- from the products his company launches to the new markets they enter, to the employees, customers, and partners Microsoft works with.

  1. Change your environment

Another advice Satya gives us is to get out of the office and meet more the people you serve. It is impossible to be an empathetic leader or empathetic person sitting in an office behind the computer all day. Empathy requires that we are out in the world, connecting, bonding and broadening circles, meeting people where they live and how they are affected by your product, technology and your purpose.

  1. Make empathy a two-way street

The last influencing-strategy Satya offers us is to make empathy a two-way street. Having empathy for evermore people is great but empathy works better if you can enable others to also have empathy with you and the purpose and mission of your company. Satya writing his book already makes it much easier for me to empathize with Microsoft, something I as an Apple-lover did not naturally do. He provides perspectives and formats to invite others, making empathy a two-way street. Meeting people where they are is great, but it becomes greater if they can get where you are too.

It is certain that Satya has many more strategies and practices to enable the adoption of empathy. We at Innate Motion will continue to learn from him to help other organizations. We look forward to working with Microsoft too and together become more empathy fit.

Christophe Fauconnier, Founder & CEO