One of the most powerful tech bosses and I are lunching high above the best-known cricket ground in the world. It’s a drizzly day at Lord’s and the grandstands are empty. But for Satya Nadella this is a pilgrimage.

“I was able to walk out to the field,” he says. “That was something else.”

As a boy from Hyderabad, he dreamt of emulating the stylish captain of the local team, ML Jaisimha, whose picture he wanted to hang alongside posters of Karl Marx (his father’s choice) and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth (his mother’s) on his bedroom wall. In the end his mother comprehensively won: in 2015-16 Microsoft’s chief executive was paid $17.7m in salary, bonus and stock awards.

These days, Nadella, who fancied himself a spin bowler, tells me he doubts he could deliver a doosra — which makes the ball turn in an unexpected direction after hitting the pitch. He hasn’t played a match since at least 1986, when he was still studying engineering. Since joining Microsoft in 1992, he tells me, “I’ve never had the time”. But he still follows the game religiously. In early 2014, he was playing with a cricket ball in his office in Seattle when the phone rang and he learnt he was to be chief executive.

He claims to have learnt three great principles from the game. In his new book, which is part memoir and part tech manifesto, he writes of the need “to compete vigorously”, even in adversity; to put your team first; and “the central importance of leadership” — specifically, empathetic leadership. There is a heady whiff of management speak here. Fellow cricket and technology watchers will know that there are tarter cricketing metaphors for his challenge. “Sticky wicket” and “stiff target” spring to mind.

Just the third chief executive in Microsoft’s history, following in the gargantuan footsteps of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, this earnest electrical engineer is enveloped in nothing less than a battle to restore the fortunes of the once all-conquering Microsoft.

Or, as he puts it over our starters: he wrote his book to address the challenge of transformation while “in the fog of war where the questions are still unanswered”.

We are sitting in the Committee Dining Room of the Marylebone Cricket Club, on top of the venerable club’s famous pavilion headquarters. Fresh from a presentation, he has changed into a smart dark blue jacket with a thin purple stripe that his dapper childhood idol Jaisimha would have admired, and a tie — compulsory for everyone dining in the pavilion at “the home of cricket”. Not that anyone is there to object. We are alone but for a statuette of the legendary Victorian batsman WG Grace and dozens of portraits of past club presidents.

Lord’s has bent the rules by allowing us to lunch, restaurant-style, in a function room that cannot usually be booked for individuals or small groups. A discreet member of the Lord’s catering staff, in suit and tie, serves me a glass of MCC-labelled Chilean Chardonnay. Nadella, who has clients to meet later, sticks to bottled still water.

When the reflective Indian-born engineer took over from his ebullient and hard-charging predecessor Steve Ballmer in 2014, Microsoft was under pressure. While its Windows operating system was still ubiquitous when he took over, Nadella inherited a company that had inexorably slipped into the shadow of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. His challenge is to secure a successful second innings for the group in a rapidly changing sector where revivals are rare — and, for companies of Microsoft’s size, virtually unknown.

In its early days, Microsoft was “an exhilarating work environment fed by adrenaline, constant brainstorming and creative drive”, according to one 1989 account. Its insatiable and highly demanding founder Gates was at the centre throughout the 1990s, driving towards his goal of putting “a personal computer on every desk and in every home”. He courted controversy by aggressively attacking rivals with every tool at his dominant company’s disposal. The tactics led to a high-profile US antitrust case and Microsoft later had to settle to avoid a forced break-up.

In the years since 2000, when Ballmer became chief executive, Microsoft inevitably became more complex and harder to manage. In the early part of this decade, tales of a poisonous, internally competitive culture started to leak from its Seattle headquarters. Surpassed by Apple in devices and Google in the growing area of search, Ballmer was accused by some investors — perhaps harshly, given the mature business he inherited — of failing to find new ways to exploit its PC past and move forward. Step forward the new boss, who, over his starter of beetroot and watermelon, stresses his leadership watchword: empathy.

The only other time I met Nadella, shortly after he took over as chief executive, he blinded me and other colleagues with impenetrable tech-speak. He still slips into jargon. I heard him earlier refer to Microsoft’s job as “intersecting the technology improvement curve with [customers’] needs”. But he seems to have learnt how to talk to a lay audience. He has a neat metaphor to sum up quantum computing, an area where Microsoft has big ambitions. If you think of computing problems as a corn maze, he says, a conventional computer would tackle each possible path, turning back when blocked. Quantum computing, by contrast, can take all the paths at the same time, vastly increasing users’ ability to cut through complexity.

I point out that a potential pitfall of a chief executive writing a book about an unfinished corporate turnround is that Nadella is putting himself at the centre of the story, even as he says he is trying to share credit. He concedes that Microsoft needs firm direction, but he stresses his role and stance are very different to the hyper-competitive Gates and Ballmer.

Unlike all the other big US technology companies, with the exception of Apple, Microsoft is not led by a founder, he says. “Founder-led, nobody questions [strong leadership]. It’s about all them, right? I mean what is Amazon without [Jeff] Bezos? What is Facebook without [Mark] Zuckerberg? No one can imagine it today.”

“In my case, I’m just a mere mortal CEO, so the leadership skills and leadership style have to be very different . . . Even though Steve [Ballmer] was not a founder, he’s near founder status. So, I can’t say, I’ll act like Bill and Steve.” Instead, Nadella says he combines a top-down and bottom-up approach — “both evangelising and listening”.

The main course arrives, with a strong English flavour — Nadella’s chicken is served with Cornish greens and a cider gravy, my pollock on a bed of tasty Morecambe Bay shrimps. I nudge the conversation towards the obvious differences between the Microsoft chief executive’s gentler leadership style and the competitive demands of the tech world. Nadella has written that he wants to lead with purpose, “not envy or combativeness”. Is combativeness not built into the company, partly thanks to Gates and Ballmer?

Times have changed, he insists. “You can’t go and say, ‘What worked for us in some zero-sum battle in the early 1990s?’ and say, ‘Let’s operate with that in the enterprise market of 2017.’ ” One of his fears when he took over was “that if we were viewed as closed, combative, not listening to customers, addressing their needs and only thinking of what is in it for us, no customer, no CIO [chief information officer], no CEO is going to trust us. And that’s the only currency in this business.”

Gates’s long shadow of course looms over Microsoft. Though he stepped down as chairman when Nadella took over, he remains a Microsoft adviser and board member. Nadella exchanges regular emails with him and diplomatically praises his appetite for learning new things. I suggest it must be hard to have him around as Nadella tries to change the culture. Gates is an “aggressive, top-class competitor, with high standards”, says Nadella. “He definitely achieved a lot of business success by exhibiting, I think, relentless pursuit of certain objectives, [but] let’s be not viewed through a lens of grand success or very aggressive behaviour at one part of our history.”

For many Microsoft observers, the moment that symbolised the break with that history came at a 2015 conference when Nadella used an iPhone to demonstrate how Microsoft apps worked on the device of its arch-rival Apple. It signalled that Nadella is now comfortable with Microsoft’s new role as a “toolmaker”, supplying products for everyone. Investors seem to like the strategy. Microsoft’s stock has risen during Nadella’s tenure. Sales in cloud computing and subscriptions are increasing even as revenue from the old core business of licensing software comes under pressure.

Nadella says he wants to change Microsoft’s mindset from a “fixed” know-it-all culture to a “growth mindset”, open to learning and trying new approaches. Anu, Nadella’s wife, introduced him to the idea, developed by psychologist Carol Dweck. Pressed on whether Microsoft still has a fierce competitive core, Nadella pushes back. “If you see a Surface ad [Surface is Microsoft’s versatile tablet computer], you will know we are competing against the iPad. If you see our cloud sales pitch, you will know we are competing fiercely with Amazon on the cloud.”

As for his own steeliness, he says changing to a more collaborative culture does not mean you can avoid taking tough decisions. For instance, he replaced most of the senior team when he took over, and moved quickly to write down the value of the Nokia handset business bought in the dying days of Ballmer’s tenure, with the loss of thousands of jobs. “The need for empathy shouldn’t take away your need for making hard calls,” he says, “but you should carry out those decisions with empathy.”

The hardest call the Nadella family had to make came over how to rethink their lives when his son Zain was born with cerebral palsy in 1996. Over lunch, he makes clear that Zain’s birth was not a “click” that made Nadella suddenly more empathetic, but the start of a lengthy personal battle to accept the situation. “When I think about my son’s birth, I struggled with it for — you know, not just like a few hours or days or weeks — for years,” he tells me.

Inevitably, this is the moment when our waiter arrives to clear the plates. Dessert is a delicately flavoured panna cotta for me and lemon and blueberry sponge for the Microsoft chief; so much for the Lord’s cliché of stodgy London club cuisine. The shock of Zain’s illness would have forced many people to take a different path, perhaps abandoning their career plans, I suggest. Nadella reflects a moment.

“Right now, I’d have that choice. I don’t think I had that choice, you know, when Zain was born,” he says. Apart from anything else, the cost of Zain’s care would have bankrupted the family without Microsoft’s health insurance.

Instead, it was Anu who had to abandon her career as an architect to help Zain and later the younger of their two daughters, now 14, who has learning differences and attends a specialist school in Canada. “It’s clearly a trade-off. There is no question. And Anu made that trade-off.”

This is sensitive territory, not least because of the heated discussion about sexism in the US technology industry. Nadella himself had to apologise early in his tenure as chief executive after saying publicly that women who did not ask for a pay rise would benefit in the long run because of “good karma”. He tells me he feels bad about an empathy lapse at an event the previous night, when a woman sought his advice about getting back to work after having a baby. He responded by talking about his own struggle with work-life balance, but it struck him later that it was “my mum’s experiences or my wife’s experience which would [have been] more relevant”.

Nadella turned 50 in August. I’m 52, with children a similar age to the Nadellas’. My wife, like Anu, did not return to her profession as a lawyer after having children, as my career developed. Looking back, I say, I now realise that in our late twenties and early thirties, we rarely appreciate the long-term consequences of such important decisions. Then suddenly two decades have gone by and there is no going back.

Nadella agrees: “We never discussed, ‘Hey, should I go . . . [Should] she go back to work [or] I?’ It was a little bit of, ‘Oh, the Microsoft thing is definitely going to be a better . . . If there was going to be only one income, let us choose the Microsoft path’ — which, of course, in retrospect, I think has worked out.”

As Nadella sips his espresso and I pour my mint tea, we tackle the great technology debate of the moment: the disconnect between “Big Tech” and its users over their fears about data privacy, security, the rise of robots and the decline of their own job prospects.

Unsurprisingly Nadella is a techno-optimist. AI, he argues, will spawn as yet unimagined new jobs, based on our most human traits. He suggests “empathologist” as one such role. Companies and governments will, he is confident, collectively see off the threat that automation poses to jobs. But when asked to select new policies, such as the payment of a universal basic income, he declines. “They’re all ideas, in the basket full of ideas,” he says.

Could evil people or organisations subvert his optimistic vision of collective action to cure the side-effects of technological advance? “History has taught us that there is evil,” he says cautiously. “And our history has also taught us that evil doesn’t prevail, but [it does] a lot of damage.” It is a rare downbeat moment in a 90-minute masterclass in undaunted optimism.

As Nadella leaves, I step out into the Lord’s drizzle, familiar to so many a cricket fan and player over the decades. Family setbacks, he had told me, had made him realise you should not adopt another persona at work: “Don’t try to be different in different places.” Had he merely beguiled me, like the spinner he once was? I don’t think so. As management editor I have interviewed scores of business leaders and heard countless phoney philosophies. Nadella’s quest for a new way of leading does seem genuine.

But the empathologist-in-chief will face many more severe tests before he can dream of declaring victory.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor

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