Nadella raised some eyebrows earlier this month when he said that women shouldn’t ask for raises at work but should just trust that their employer will give them one. "It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along,” he said at a women-in-tech conference on Oct. 9.
Nadella went on CNBC on Monday to reiterate his regret and explain himself further. “I was completely wrong in the answer I gave,” he said. “Because I basically took my own approach to how I've approached my career and sprung it on half the humanity.” Later, he added: "I just gave a very generic answer — based on, quite frankly, what I've believed and how I've practiced and lived my life."
So let’s get this straight: Nadella never asked for a raise or promotion and somehow just got tapped to be CEO? Really?
According to his CNBC interview, that's pretty much what happened. “In 22 years, I came to Microsoft as somebody who knew nobody here, and in 22 years I've become CEO,” he said.
Nadella did not immediately respond to a request for further explanation.
That raises the question: How likely is it that an employee will advance to the C-suite without ever having to ask for a pay raise or promotion? Not very likely, according to Nancy Rothbard, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“Typically, what the bulk of the research suggests is that you need to be able to ask for opportunities to make them happen,” Rothbard said. “There are some people lucky enough to just have people tap them on the shoulder, but that's a much rarer event.”
Rothbard said it’s even less likely that women will be chosen for a promotion or more responsibility without asking for it. “Women are less likely to be tapped, because people make assumptions. They think, ‘Oh, she wouldn’t want to do that, because she has a family,’” she said.
There are ways to move up the ladder without explicitly asking for it, Rothbard said. You could take on a high-profile client or an international assignment, for example. “That allows you to showcase your talents and your abilities, and that will then put you on a fast track,” Rothbard said. “But even then, very, very often -- you still have to ask [for the opportunity].”
Microsoft’s reputation as a cut-throat work environment makes it even more remarkable that Nadella, or anyone at the firm, could advance without at least a pinch of naked self-assertiveness. In a deep dive into the company in 2012, investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald wrote for Vanity Fair about Microsoft’s ruthless internal politics, specifically noting how “bitterness about financial disparities among employees” often led to “a toxic stew of internal antagonism and warfare.”
“Employees struggled to beat out their co-workers for promotions, bonuses, or just survival,” Eichenwald wrote.