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Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella broke unspoken rules on his rise to CEO

  • Satya Nadella once had to give up his green card so he could get an H1-B visa so his wife could come to the U.S.
  • When he was in the running to replace Steve Ballmer as Microsoft CEO, Ballmer advised him to go against common wisdom and be himself, rather than pretending to be more aggressive than he naturally was.
  • When his son Zain was born with cerebral palsy, it forced Satya to change how he looks at relationships.
Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp
Mark Kauzlarich | Bloomberg | Getty
Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp

Satya Nadella is the third CEO of Microsoft. He's also a husband and a father of special-needs kids. He's an immigrant.

And he's pretty close to doing something that, until he took the job just over three and a half years ago, most people in tech – heck, most people at Microsoft – thought was impossible.

That near-impossible task is a cultural revival of a once-dominant tech giant that was losing its grip on its soul. Under Nadella's leadership morale is up, and so is product quality and the stock price. The question is whether all of that can stick.

Satya sat down with me at the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square in New York, where he stopped through to promote his new book, "Hit Refresh," about the revival he's attempting at Microsoft. The conversation for my Fortt Knox podcast offers a fresh look at one of the most influential technology leaders in the world today, who's engineering a cultural rebirth few thought possible – while also being a dad who faces some unique challenges helping his kids reach their full potential.

To do it all, he's made some decisions that go directly against popular wisdom. Some highlights:

Downgrading his green card

As a young engineer at Microsoft, Nadella faced a quandary. He was ready to start a family – but with his green card, he wouldn't be able to bring his wife Anu over to the United States. An immigration lawyer at Microsoft suggested a move that seemed ridiculous: Give up his coveted green card, and get an H1-B visa, which allows spouses to enter the U.S. I asked him about the story he recounts in the book, and how it influences the way he looks at today's immigration debate.

"A comprehensive immigration reform—that again, speaks to our interests as a nation, what makes us stronger, what makes us more competitive, I think is much needed," Nadella said. "The idea that you have to give up your green card to get an H1-B is, in retrospect, silly. And so therefore let us in fact take the reform so that it works for us, both our security but as well as our competitiveness."

Showing his hunger

When he was one of several candidates to be the next CEO, one of the Microsoft board members who would pick the successor pulled him aside. If you want the job, he said, you have to act more like you're really hungry for it. Outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer dismissed that notion, saying it's too late to act like a different person now.

"It was not like we were sitting around, thinking that Steve is going to retire. So it was a shock. And the board did the right thing, which is they looked far and wide," Nadella said. "When they came and talked to me and they said, 'Do you wanna be CEO,' I was honest. I said, 'Only if you want me to be CEO.'"

That goes against all the advice in the business books, self-help books, and self-esteem books. But Nadella wasn't lacking in confidence – he was just bringing a different style, a different humility, to the job.

Leading with empathy

One of the more personal angles in Hit Refresh – and in my conversation with Nadella – concerns his journey as a father. His son Zain was born with cerebral palsy, a challenge that forced him to change the way he looks at relationships not only at home, but also at work.

"A few years went by and then I realized nothing happened to me. Something happened to Zain," Nadella said. "What's my responsibility as a father? I think that was perhaps one of, you know, the big hit refresh moments when I look back for me personally, that has influenced. And so, I think it's our life's experience that then leads into work, and work's experience that leads into life. And it's one of those things where, it has to be lived. We can't be taught about it."

Today's corporate cultures can sometimes glorify a take-no-prisoners approach; but that's not the only way.