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Perspective: Microsoft's CEO pick will be dubbed a dud, bragged as brilliant

Gregg Keizer | Jan. 2, 2014
History shows that no matter who gets the nod, some of the commentariat will cry foul.

No matter who Microsoft names as its third-ever chief executive early in 2014, the pick will trigger comments from experts and technology leaders who will question the sanity of the board, the person who took the job or — throwing caution to the wind — everyone involved.

That's just how it works. CEO choices cannot please everyone, especially ones like Microsoft's, not when there are as many opinions on the causes of the giant's problems — and predicted solutions — as there are people armed with a keyboard or a finger able to touch a tablet.

"Let's face it, the current business model doesn't work, and you can't tweak it to improve it," said Kimball Brown, an analyst with Dataquest.

But Brown wasn't talking about Microsoft, or even commenting in the present: That quote came from a July 11, 1997, piece in the New York Times about Apple, which had just tossed out its latest CEO, Gil Amelio, and was looking for a replacement.

The man who stepped into the role, eight weeks later as interim chief executive, then as permanent CEO two-and-a-half years down the road, was co-founder Steve Jobs. And everyone knows how that turned out.

Microsoft will announce the replacement for departing CEO Steve Ballmer early in the new year, perhaps in its first weeks, before the board welcomes — one can assume begrudgingly — the representative of an activist investor at the table.

Candidate names have circulated since Ballmer, 57, abruptly announced his retirement in August, citing a conflict between his previous plans to yield the office and the transformation of Microsoft from a seller of packaged software to a purveyor of mobile devices and online services. Ballmer has denied that he was ousted, but comments given by John Thompson, the director leading the CEO search, to the Wall Street Journal in November hinted that pressure had been put on Ballmer to step up his game or step aside.

Those names, all backed by anonymous sources, have included Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally, former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, current Microsoft executives like Tony Bates and Satya Nadella, and others.

But no matter who the board names, whether one of those four, any of the more than 100 that Thompson claimed had been identified as potential candidates, the "several dozen" who were interviewed, perhaps a true dark horse out of nowhere, or even a returning Bill Gates — as far-fetched as that sounds — the choice won't please all. Even if the pick is, in hindsight years down the line, absolutely brilliant.

Wall Street, for instance, has bet big on Mulally, lauding him for his business and organizational acumen, a reputation that rests largely on the turnaround he engineered at Ford. If Microsoft's next CEO is not Mulally, there's a good chance financial analysts will punish the company — and its stock — by dismissing the selection as insufficiently daring, simply a swap for a Ballmer wannabee, or lacking top-dog experience managing a company of Microsoft's size and breadth.


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