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Lessons from Microsoft's overseas hiring

Saturday, 8 February 2014 - 8:58am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

If the US can learn from Microsoft's overseas hiring, then there's hope for us all, says Katherine Rushton in a Viewpoint column from New York on Microsoft, Twitter, and jargon

Satya Nadella's appointment as chief executive of Microsoft took a fair few analysts by surprise. They had been staking their bets on someone higher profile - but that was not the only reason for their startled reaction. A number privately admitted that they were also taken aback by Mr Nadella's origins.

"What, an Indian Indian?" one seasoned commentator asked. "Where was he raised and educated?".

Mr Nadella, 46, was born in Hyderabad and studied electrical engineering at Manipal University in Karnataka, southern India, before moving to America to pursue his post-grad studies in Wisconsin and Chicago.

These days, his Indian accent may be rounded with an American lilt, but he remains very much someone born and bred on the subcontinent. He is Indian Indian in anyone's book.

America is a multi-cultural society - it has its first African-American president, after all - but it is still unusual to see a foreigner take the helm of a US firm. It seems they like their chief executives white, all-American, middle class and educated at Harvard or Yale.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Indra Nooyi, the boss of Pepsi Co, and Shantanu Narayen, head of Adobe, were also born in India. Pfizer, the US drugs giant, is headed by Ian Read, a Scot, while David Long, a Liverpudlian, leads Liberty Mutual Insurance Group. The chief executive of Best Buy is French.

But, overall, US corporations tend to stick to US leaders: although most Fortune 100 companies are vast multinationals, with a substantial presence in major cities across the globe, just 14 have chief executives born outside America.

It is a figure that has remained more or less static for a decade, and one
that looks even less progressive when you consider that more than half of those foreigners who have snagged the top job spent almost their entire career scaling the ranks at their firm.

Clearly, Mr Nadella falls into that camp. He worked for Microsoft for 22 of his 46 years before being crowned chief executive this week. However, that will not limit the intense scrutiny he faces over the coming months, as both the technology industry and corporate America work out what to make of this relatively unknown figure.

Microsoft investors need him to succeed, for obvious reasons. They need him to drag the technology firm out of the doldrums to a place where it can compete effectively with Google and Apple.

But they are not the only ones who stand to benefit from Nadella's success. If America learns it is worthwhile hiring from overseas - and taking a punt on candidates with degrees and CVs they may not immediately know how to judge - that opens the door a crack wider for us all.

UK plc worries about losing its business talent to America, whether they are lured by better salaries or the promise of a better career in technology. But one man's brain drain is another man's opportunity, and, in a global talent market, migration is inevitable.

We have to make sure that the traffic is two-way, of course. But we also have to make sure that if we are losing some of our candidates to Uncle Sam, they at least have a decent shot at the top.

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