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How fathering a son with disabilities helped Microsoft's CEO transform the company

Satya Nadella
Satya Nadella (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

We all know or have seen someone with a disability. But how many of us have stopped to look at life through that person's eyes? How many of us have contemplated the profound challenge even a tiny staircase poses to someone who uses a wheelchair? Or who among us has considered that the displays on our devices are a barrier to the visually impaired?

Update March 2, 2022: In light of Zain Nadella's recent passing, we are re-running this story first published in Sept. 2017.

As we complain about and compare the accuracy of digital keyboards, people with quadriplegia wish for the ability to merely use a keyboard. Most of us don't give much thought to these things. And when we do, it is often a brief contemplation because we feel uncomfortable and sometimes helpless to do anything about it. But what about large companies like Microsoft? How does a leader shape an empathetic culture and see the needs of employees and all of its customers?

Learning to see through others' eyes

A leader's character sets the tone and the atmosphere of a company's culture. That culture affects how team members feel about themselves in their work environments and how they feel about and interact with others.

Without a clear vision of others, who they are, and what they need, a company will have a clinical, anesthetic approach in its service to its employees and customers. There will be a disconnect. A company without the ability to perceive a need through a customer's eyes will struggle for relevance and have more failures than successes. Its potential to have a meaningful impact on the lives of people of varying levels of ability will also be limited.

A company that has profound human resources, a pool of sharp minds, broad technological reach, and billions of dollars in capital has the power to help the disabled and the disadvantaged in a way charitable efforts of lesser means cannot.

Microsoft has had many profound world-changing successes as well as many notable and image-damaging failures. Over 40 years ago, founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen set out to put a PC on every desk and in every home. These visionaries saw a need that PCs would help businesses and individuals fulfill. The PC on every desk and in every home goal has been more or less achieved in most developed regions. But Microsoft's internal structure has been notoriously plagued by a toxic environment of infighting and competition that for a time hurt its ability to serve its customer's needs effectively.

Self-destructive culture

The competitiveness and fear of failure that permeated Microsoft's culture were exacerbated by the leadership styles of Gates and Steve Ballmer, the company's first two CEOs.

Current CEO Satya Nadella remarked in a recent interview that both these men exercised a leadership approach where they initiated a conversation by first acknowledging the "20 things you did wrong."

During and in the wake of a very public antitrust battle, this type of leadership drew the company's focus inward. As it began to walk on eggshells to address its own needs to avoid further infractions, Microsoft lost sight of customers and their needs.

The company was failing at the expression of empathy, the ability to see things through another's eyes, until Nadella, whose eyes were opened by his son Zain, who has Cerebral Palsy, took the helm.

Zain and Microsoft's cultural change

Nadella's oldest son, Zain, was born in 1996 with severe Cerebral Palsy. Nadella said this of the life-altering event:

If anything, I should be doing everything to put myself in [Zain's] shoes, given the privilege I have to be able to help him … empathy is a massive part of who I am today ... I distinctly remember who I was as a person before and after.

Satya Nadella

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

This shift in Nadella's outlook led him to become the executive sponsor for Microsoft's community group for disabled staff members years before becoming CEO. He continues to meet with the group and speaks at its annual event. Nadella's seeing the world through his son's eyes with limited mobility has helped him see the need for Microsoft's products to be accessible to all and made him a more empathetic leader.

Nadella's mission for Microsoft is to empower every person and company to achieve more. A passion for giving people of varying abilities the tools to empower them and achieve their goals is a mission birthed from empathy. Nadella has worked to change Microsoft's competitive culture to embrace these values internally so that they are reflected with its customers.

Failure is now embraced as a learning experience; taking chances is an opportunity to learn. I can imagine that encouraging his son to take chances and supporting him through failures and successes contributes to this empathetic leadership style.

Change happens

Satya Nadella

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Many Microsoft watchers may focus on Microsoft's high-profile failures and miss the broader effects the shift in leadership has brought the company. When Nadella took the helm, the company was viewed as headed toward irrelevance, and it has since more than recovered, and its shares now exceed previous peaks.

Nadella's approach to leadership is more inclusive than that of his predecessors. He encourages relationships with former competitors like Linux, DropBox, and other tech companies with whom it now collaborates. Perhaps raising Zain opened Nadella's eyes to the network of support Microsoft will need to remain relevant long after he leaves the post as CEO.

Given its position, Microsoft's ability to beneficially affect the lives of individuals with disabilities is not lost on the company. During a senior leadership team meeting in June, Microsoft engineers were video-conferenced in so that a prototype of an app for visually impaired people could be tested. That's just one example of how Microsoft uses its resources to assist those with disabilities.

Making an impact

During its Build 2016 developer conference, a blind Microsoft employee demonstrated AI-driven smartglasses that use Microsoft's Cognitive Services to help the blind navigate the world. The software can recognize facial expressions, activity, and more. This app, now called Seeing AI, was made available on iOS this year.

During Microsoft's Hackathon event a team of individuals embraced the seemingly mundane task to make Windows easier to navigate for the visually impaired. Though not as exciting a task as some other hackathon endeavors, imagine the impact this will have for millions of people worldwide who may otherwise not have been able to use Windows.

Microsoft OneNote has also been used to help children with dyslexia read and spell. HoloLens has helped surgeons with spinal surgeries.

Eye tracking technology has been used to help people with ALS navigate their world. This same tech is part of Windows and empowers people to navigate Windows with just their eyes. Imagine a mind trapped in a body, unable to express one's thoughts or move verbally. Imagine being released from that prison by technology that allows one's eye, the windows to the soul, to express oneself using Windows.

No leader or company is perfect. But Microsoft has shifted toward a more empathetic company in the three years since Nadella has taken the helm. How might that empathy continue to translate into how it interacts with consumers and meets customer needs in the years to come.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

34 Comments
  • Thanks for reading. Let's talk.
  • I hope he treated his son better than he treated Microsoft consumers!
  • Well, this comment didn't age well...
  • The problem is he's been pursuing short term profits in order to drive up the stock price for the sake of his own personal wealth. This guys so far has been terrible for the long term health of MS and it's employee as well as customers. I'm sure he's a compassionate person, but he's also a terrible leader. 
  • The sole purpose of any comporation is to maximize return to teh stockhodlers. Any benefit to employeees or customers id incidental. Strategies to maximize return might be to produce a useful product at a a copetive price that cionsumers will buy. A further strategy wouild address what kind o fstaf is needed to develop the product and wha tdo we need to do to maintain such a staff. Stockholders first, customers and employees later That is the way it is. 
  • Unfortunately that misses out the point where you want to generate profits over the long term.   He blew the windows phone platform, if Balmer had been at the helm he would have hung in there to let market share grow.  Essentially Nadella has not been honest with stockholders, he's a hatchet man if he works for the short term as when the consequences arrive the last one holding the stocks will be burned, saw that with Marconi.   Surface phone may come, but it is hard to see anyone trusting Microsoft and investing in the platform with Nadella at the helm.
  • Tottaly agree with you view. I think this is the way forward especialy in a society that permanantly evaluates all the actions and can share information at the speed of light. However i believe that on somethings the BIg Bang approach performed was not the best and let several people disapointed. It is good to build more rooms in the house, but only if you do not reck the foundation. The idea is great, but i am not sure the foundations at this moment are as solid as they would like. Mobile is off, and that alone at this moment i would guess takes ou 80% of the entire Bainiac work force developing for the "other" world. If i am developing for the visual impaired, or people with mobility isseus, most likelly i will be doing it for small devices. And let's face it. MS has none.  
  • What a load of BS!
  • The only thing Nutella could be know for is : Hololens for consumers
    W10 Arm
    "Surface phone"
    Cortana "other" devices The thing he's known for : Destroying W10M
  • if 2018 comes and goes without a windows-driven phone, i'll agree with you. i don't have any skin in the game currently, so i'm fine with holding a longterm view. if something does come out, it will justify current actions. its possible that things are still very fluid and not guaranteed and that's why no announcements have been made. or maybe he's even getting push back from shareholders and he's doing what he can to keep the vision alive.
  • Thank you Jason, this was the best literary [blank] I ever had. Best regards, your buddy Satya.
  • LOL
  • This article explains what the world needs more of.
  • Satya Nadella is awesome.
  • Making mistakes is a learning opportuniy? And yet he is the guy cancelling first party Windows Phones and Microsoft Band (version 3 was canned just before launch) I mean, you can gain so much more insight from mistakes made in earlier attempts but if there is nolonger the option to use those new insights in future itterations of the product?! What is the point of creating a work inviorment that promotes that learning from once mistakes then? The whole process just seems cruel to me >.<
  • Microsoft do give strong support to the Special Olympics.
  • 19Michael87, canceling first party Windows Phone and Microsoft Band are actually examples of learnig from the same mistake. MS screwed up in the mobile space, and finally concluded that continuing on their current path, had NO POSSIBILITY OF SUCESS. They had learned from that mistake, so there was nothing more to be learned by continuing what they were doing. They chose to retrench and start over. Right now, whaterver mistakes thay are making, and potentially learing from. are being made internally.   Flim Flam on Jam, It is not really Microsoft giving to the Special Olympics. Microsoft either sets prices high enought to extract donations from thier customers, or withholds profits from their shareholders. Either way, when a coportation chooses to make a donations, they are really directing someone else money to a charity of the corportion's choice. 
  • Yeah giving up 3.5-5% marketshare and around 10% makor European markets to retrench into oblovian was really a learning moment! They pushed the UWP while simultaneously cutting off the mobile part of the equation, forgoing any developer incentive to choose UWP (targeting the Win 10 family if devices) over Win32 (targeting every version of Windows ever made, including Win 10) Nadella never really tried. The Nokia buy out was a Ballmer hold over which he never supported. At first opportunity he started slashing the new mobile division en cutting it to the bone. If directly after the Nokia buy out Microsoft would have thrown it's entire weight behind the deal and actually tried to make it work things might have been completely different today. Same for the Microsoft Band if they never came further then a BETA product the third itteration would have been the consumer ready version, he could have tried to mass market it and make it happen... But no, he scrapped the entire product before it left the gate! #sad #stupid
  • moaning about the band is stupid. from the get-go, they made it known the band was really a demonstration unit for their sensors array for third party manufacturers. it was supposed to be like the surface. a higher-end device to showcase what is possible with their technology. it wasn't supposed to be a #1 seller. it was supposed to be emulated. it wasn't. so if it didn't sell what they wanted to seel, there was no point in continuing. the band was a failure as it didn't achieve what they meant to do. i still see promise with where they are taking Windows 10. if they can succeed in what they're doing, it opens up entirely new capabilities in mobile and wearables. it makes sense to not hemorrhage money to keep a handful of people happy. focus on making everybody happy. if that means making someone wait, so be it. i get that waiting is a dangerous game in tech, but if they release something before its ready, it'd kill any future attempts at this point. they need their next attempt to succeed.
  • Jason should write for Gossip magazines, he has a vivid imagination.
  • Always has had
  • The arrogance of the Gates/ Ballmer era is the reason Microsoft missed out on the mobile revolution. Nadal's isn't just connecting with Microsoft with it's customers, his vison for cloud based software and services could put Microsoft out in front of the next big tech. revolution.
  • The arrogance of the Gates/ Ballmer era is the reason Microsoft missed out on the mobile revolution. Nadal isn't just connecting Microsoft with it's customers, his vison for cloud based software and services could put Microsoft out in front of the next big tech. revolution.
  • Nadal is a tennis player
  • All very negative comments from people who have been "let down by Microsoft" (boo hoo). You all think they've failed right? But how many patents do you think they have in place? How many of these augmented reality products exist without Microsoft getting some payback? Granted others will have thier own and money will flow in many directions. Does a company need to launch a product to be a success? No one had even contemplated mixed reality in the way MS had until we all saw Hololens. But because it hasn't been released it's a failure? Microsoft may have achieved what they wanted to from that project. So for them it could be a success. You are all judging this company and it's CEO based on your own personal experiences/losses. In that respect, no, Microsoft don't care one bit. Well, OK, they might be sympathetic (we still have a W10M maintenance branch for example) but who knows what the objectives and business benefits of their projects were... Not us, that's for sure. Do Microsoft look like a failing company? Not from what I see. Did they need to restructure? Of course, any company that wants to survive the next bubble needs to be able to adapt. Are they adapting you YOUR specific requirements? Probably not. Do they have to tell us what and why they do what they do? Absolutely not. But the Insider programmes buck that trend and show that they are willing to listen and engage. I've come to the conclusion that the only people who respond to these kind of posts are those that bear a grudge or like to poke at things they don't undertand... Get real, there are far worse problems than whether Microsoft will ever launch another phone... It's a phone for **** sake! If you really don't like this company that much, then move on. Use a different OS, don't buy a surface device or give up technology altogether. Until then, try and contribute something rather than whinge. It's not very becoming of you...
  • Well ....to be honest,it's millions of phones and that's just the flagship model and .....er.....a phone company,and not just a phone company but Nokia,the top phone company,......since we're keeping it real 
  • Hello all,   Liston, I am Sean Nave, a man who did not know what to do with my life, so I drifted through life, working and going to school, until I got into title insurance. Not exactly what I wanted, and I was studying computer science, of and on for 15 years. That was 13 years ago, now I have a traumatic brain injury on top of all this.   I had mild cerebral palsy, since I was born on Mount Carmel, Haifa, in Israel, to Romanian parents, and came to the United States in 1980. It took me four years to speak English again after my accident, and another six until it has become a main language again.   I am 39, and now that I am walking and doing things again. (though not what most “normal” people would consider work). I am now ready to return to school, along with therapy in 2018 – 19.   I will be 40 when I start again, and I pity those of you that worry about how the CEO works. How about all of you examine your life to mine, instead of examining Mr. Nadella.      
  • This is such an insightful article not only in leadership, but, in recognition of the disabled.  I am a mother of a disabled adult and I know how much my daughter has helped to mold me into who I am today.  I do hope the Airline industry will take note and try to make (much needed) changes to airplanes.  It is horrible for the disabled to fly from one destination to another - take for example the bathrooms, the abled-body can barely fit into one.  There is absolutely no consideration for the disabled.  With all the new technology, the airline industry needs to partner and/or collaborate with the tech industry in coming up with a solution (soon)
  • There are certainly a number of things the Airline Industry could improve for everyone, however the space you are looking for is not likely to be an area that will change.  Everybody needs to accept the limitations of airlines -- the more changes you demand to serve in your lifetime, the more the use of a plane gets priced out of reach for most.
  • Now it it reads  right, and you need a close. 
  • disabilities come in all forms and sizes. people don't realize how it can affect the family. There are those of us who our legs, arms and everything else works great but we are dependent on modern medicine to live day to day.
    when you have breathing problems or diabetes, it takes a toll on the body. we of all problems, I feel, are stronger in some ways than the 'normal' person. (Depending upon how much support you get growing up).
    Like everyone else, we are limited by what we are taught threw life and we can either have a good like or we can wallow around in self pitty. (That is not accepted in my family).
    Face life with the challenge it gave you and look it in the face and declare "You are not going to defeat me, I will defeat you!"
  • Jason, maybe "someone who is wheelchair bound" should be something like "someone who uses a wheelchair".  I have CP and use a wheelchair. We don't like having a disability, but our chairs give us mobility which is a good thing.
  • Good feedback. Thank you. I'm sorry, didn't mean to offend.
  • I'm a wheelchair user, and I'm not affended by that term (but maybe that's just me).  There's a nuance - I've used the term bound or confined because I can't get around without my wheelchair.  There are other wheelchair users that can get around a little without needing it all the time, and wheelchair user may apply there.