There are many similarities between the two. Both are chief executive officers (CEOs) of top American companies with a huge interest in India. Their companies are leaders in the technology space and their annual revenues are apart from each other by $10 billion. They are almost the same age.
But the two visiting business bosses - Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of the $75-billion e-commerce company Amazonand Satya Nadella, CEO of the $87-billion software firmMicrosoft - with engineering degrees and a shared passion to invent and build things, could not have been more different in the way they came across through their interactions during the last few days in India.
Bezos kept his audience regaled at every forum with his explosive laughter, witty one-liners and showmanship, though he’s known to be quite a taskmaster and at times a boss with cutting remarks. Nadella appeared modest and humble, but without any of the paraphernalia of a celebrity CEO, as an observer pointed out.
The difference was between a professional CEO and a founder perhaps, as well as the fact that Bezos was an American while Nadella still retained his Indian-ness in terms of personality, industry watchers commented. But, if style is kept aside, they spoke of values and principles that sounded similar.
“Slap me if I fall asleep,” was Bezos’ way of telling Business Standard reporters at the start of an interview on Sunday evening that he was jet-lagged and sleep-deprived. The founder of Amazon wore rolled-up sleeves, with no tie or jacket, while speaking to the media through the day at a Bangalore luxury hotel right in front of the company office.
Unlike other multinationals that believe in clockwork appointments when chief executives come from abroad, Bezos, 50, met many journalists ahead of time. That perhaps gave him some extra time to sleep after a day of back-to-back interviews and what must have been a tiring photo-shoot in sherwani, hanging out of a truck quite like the Virgin group’s Richard Branson, making the Amazon boss the headline news across newspapers the next day.
He even flashed a $2-billion cheque, reminding the people of India that Amazon had just invested that amount in the country, double of what was raised by competitor Flipkart.
Satya Nadella, 47, who moved to the US to study computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after getting an engineering degree from the Manipal Institute of Technology in 1987, did not indulge in any starry gimmicks. There were hardly any media interviews either.
It was all very low-key, is how a person who tracked the Microsoft chief’s India visit said. “Getting nostalgic about India was not on his agenda.” While Nadella, dressed formally, did a 20-minute press conference in New Delhi earlier this week, there was no time for any question related to his years in India.
Bezos, on the other hand, took every opportunity to speak glowingly about his previous visit five years ago, when he vacationed with his then nine-year-old son. Even now, he made it a point to praise India’s achievement in the Mars Orbiter Mission while pointing out his affinity for anything related to space, tracing back his interest to the Star Trek days.
“I will return to Seattle with an extra kick in my step,” Bezos said. To sound positive about India, Bezos said his company did not think it was very difficult to do business in India, though the e-commerce sector, including Amazon, is facing many policy and tax challenges in the country. If Bezos said India was energetic, Nadella too said the energy and optimism in the country was palpable.
Nadella’s India connect in business was more about launching data centres. In India for the first time since he succeeded Steve Ballmer as Microsoft boss in February, he spent as much time as possible in the company’s offices. Like any other time when Nadella is in the news, his father, former bureaucrat BN Yugandhar, was hounded by the media with questions about his famous son. Outside his straight-jacketed meetings, Nadella was the chief guest at a media event and also gave a pep talk to students telling them to “love your job”.
The talk with students was an interaction jointly held with Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, and Nadella did let his guard down here. He took off his blazer as he gave several mantras to students: Live as if it’s your last day, but learn as if you have to live forever. Nadella advised the youth to “fall in love with what you do. Then it doesn’t feel like work!”
Speaking of himself, Nadella said when he was growing up, he had not anticipated that he would “go west of Mumbai”. And then how he landed up in Wisconsin. It’s not just been a journey of progress, but there have been so many ups and downs.
Failure is something that Bezos spoke about at length. There have been several failures at Amazon, he said at a conversation organised by business chamber Ficci. He’s known for saying it’s okay to commit mistakes, but not okay to be timid. In fact, Bezos too urged kids to “finish school” and love what they were doing. “It is still day one”, is another famous quote from Bezos. While Nadella said it in a quieter way, Bezos conveyed the same in an animated style, interspersed with his characteristic laugh. Once after a great vacation “I came back to my office dancing,” Bezos said, explaining what loving the job meant.
The Microsoft CEO is in no way just a geek, but has deep interest in literature, American and Indian poetry to be specific. Cricket is another love of his life. Bezos displayed his love for words too (so what if he quoted business magnate and investor Warren Buffett). “Warren Buffett has this fantastic quote: You can hold a ballet, and that’s okay. And you can hold a rock concert, and that’s okay too. But just don’t hold a ballet and advertise that there’s a rock concert.” Just be clear about who you were and the investors would select, said Bezos.
Nadella focused on understanding the business operations here and speaking to company executives. Most of his conversations revolved around Microsoft’s new strategy: mobile first, cloud first. It was so much of an official trip that he skipped visiting his school, Hyderabad Public School. According to people in the know, Nadella restricted his public appearances as he was still new to the job and was trying to bring the company back to its days of glory.
People who have interacted with him earlier describe Nadella as extremely down to earth. He hasn’t changed much. “He manages to connect with his audiences without letting out too much emotion, especially if you compare with his predecessor Steve Ballmer, who was another extreme,” said a Microsoft insider.
And, Bezos likes to be expressive, with large doses of theatrics. He spoke about his wife who loves him because he does the dishes; Amazon India having an uncle in the US who sends the money; he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeping the world balanced as they were in each other’s countries at the same time; cutting out the noise while referring to competition; the need to obsess about customers; importance of thinking long-term. Many of these things were part of the letter Bezos wrote to Amazon shareholders way back in 1997, the year Amazon was listed. Those principles still work.