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Steve Ballmer's departure from Microsoft isn't news, but timing is

Jonathan Hassell | Aug. 26, 2013
Microsoft observers knew CEO Steve Ballmer was due to step down soon, but announcing his impending retirement weeks after an executive reorganization seems odd. With that in mind, contributor Jonathan Hassell examines the triumphs and missteps of Ballmer's 13-year tenure in Microsoft's corner office.

Perhaps distracted by Thomas Penfield-Jackson and the antitrust trial, or perhaps hobbled by Bill Gates handing the reigns to Steve Ballmer in the year 2000, or perhaps for some other reason, Microsoft let Apple recapture its magic, begin the mobile revolution and make its way from "worthless" to the most valuable company on the planet Earth in 2012.

If Ballmer were aware of his competitors and able to articulate and execute a strategic vision, Apple would not have made such a dramatic comeback. It's that simple.

Candidates to Replace Ballmer Few, Far Between
This news begs the question: Who's on deck? The answer is much less clear. Despite the recent reorganization of the company's executive team, there's no clear cut successor. Microsoft is a diverse company operating in a number of sectors, so any chief executive needs the ability to clearly see and make decisions in a cross-discipline approach. He or she needs experience both in technology as well as business.

Of the current crop of Microsoft executives, only Tony Bates and Satya Nadella have the chops and experience that Microsoft needs in a visionary leader. Both have experience running organizations, are sufficiently technical to craft a strategic plan and continue the "devices and services" transition, and have the gravitas to be the chief executive.

Of the two, my vote goes to Nadella, who helms the only part of Microsoft that is both consistently profitable and growing world class offerings that meet with customer approval: The Cloud and Enterprise Group. (Of course, there's the distinct possibility the board will choose an outside candidate. At that point, all bets are off.)

Ballmer Was No Visionary, But He Didn't Mess Up, Either
I don't think anyone seriously believes Steve Ballmer was a bad CEO-bad as in Robert Nardelli at Home Depot or Darl McBride at SCO.

But Steve Ballmer wasn't a great CEO. Sure, the financial performance was great from a business standpoint, but shareholders weren't really rewarded with stock price appreciation - and much of that stagnation may well be linked to the lack of innovation, strategic response and execution that has beleaguered the software giant since 2000.

Ballmer was a mediocre CEO who managed not to mess up the money too much but lacked the vision and technical acuity to really respond to the changes in the technological landscape. The challenge to Microsoft now is to find someone who can get both of those facets down quickly.


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