When Satya Nadella interviewed at Microsoft, where he would later be named CEO, the final question after hours of demonstrating his technical prowess threw him for a loop.
If a baby falls down in a crosswalk just as the light turns green, Richard Tait asked Nadella, what do you do?
"This is not something I learned in school," Nadella told the audience at the Lied Center for Performing Arts on Thursday, where he appeared for a conversation with Jeff Raikes, a native of Ashland and former executive of the technology company.
There was no algorithm that explained how to help out the baby or to divert traffic, so Nadella explained he would opt to call 911.
Wrong answer, he learned.
"You need some empathy," Tait told him as he walked him to the door. "When a baby falls, the first thing you do is pick the baby up and hug them."
The lesson in the power of empathy and its role in business and life has stuck with Nadella, who said the ability to understand the world from the view of someone else has guided the reshaping of Microsoft's culture to regain the intellectual curiosity of its early years.
From the beginning, Microsoft had the goal of putting a personal computer in every home and on every desk, Nadella said — a goal it had nearly met by the end of the 1990s.
While that was an oft-stated goal, it wasn't Microsoft's founding mission, he added: "We want to build technology so that others can build technology."
To get back to that mission, Nadella said, required a transformation of Microsoft's culture, a "continual process" he likened to refreshing a webpage.
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"Refreshing only changes the things on a webpage that need changing," he said.
Nadella said he has also worked to build trust among Microsoft's employees and create a "team-first" environment in the company where they can be constantly learning, exploring and innovating together.
Raikes, the namesake of the Raikes School of Computer Science and Management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said Nadella "doesn't strive to be the smartest guy in the room, which would lack humility."
"He strives to be the most intellectually curious person in the room," Raikes said. "And I think that's a very important attribute and represents the kind of humility and mindset that's important."
Nadella said Microsoft is going to continue its transformation, as it seeks to diversify its workforce to better reflect the planet it hopes to serve and become a more inclusive place.
The underlying principle to meet that goal, he said, is empathy.
"Innovation is about being able to meet these unmet, un-articulated needs of customers," Nadella said. "The way you really build innovation or create innovation is through empathy."
Innovative companies, like what he hopes to remake Microsoft into — a "platform company" that solves human problems — need to really listen to their customers in order to understand their needs, he added, calling empathy "existential for any business."
And the practice of empathy isn't something that can be turned on or off depending on the need. It's an around-the-clock attribute that can be cultivated, he said.
"The best way to build this muscle around innovation is to let your life's experience help you grow," he said.