Meet Microsoft's new board chairman John Thompson

Meet Microsoft's new board chairman John Thompson

Summary: Microsoft has a new chairman of the board, effective immediately. Meet former IBMer John Thompson, who is taking over that role from Bill Gates.


As part of the CEO transition at Microsoft, via which Satya Nadella is taking over as the company's third CEO effective immediately, one of Microsoft's current board members, John Thompson is simultaneously taking on the role of Microsoft board chairman.


Thompson is replacing Gates as board chairman. Gates is remaining on the Microsoft board. Ex-CEO Steve Ballmer is staying on the board as well, a spokesperson confirmed.  But Gates' new title is "founder and technology advisor." Gates will be advising Nadella on product direction and has freed up "over a third" of his time to potentially meet with product groups at Microsoft for some undisclosed length of time. (Yes, I admit I am skeptical about the realities of the greater Gates involvement part of this equation.)

Thompson has been a member of Microsoft's board for two years. He has also been leading Microsoft's CEO search for the past five months-plus. (In a new video clip of Thompson, which Microsoft posted today, Thompson claims Nadella was the search committee's "first and unanimous choice" after reviewing all the CEO candidates.)

He is the CEO of Virtual Instruments, a company that manages virtual-physical cloud migrations and an investor in a handful of early-stage tech companies in Silicon Valley. Thompson also served as CEO of Symanec for ten years, through 2009, and on Symantec's board until 2011. Before that, he held a variety of management positions at IBM in sales, marketing, software development for a variety of products including (somewhat ironically), OS/2.

Thompson recorded a Microsoft Channel 9 video last August, on the day that Microsoft announced its most recent reorg, designed to facilitate the company's shift to a devices and services company.

Read this

Microsoft goes internal for its next CEO with Satya Nadella

Microsoft goes internal for its next CEO with Satya Nadella

What does this mean for the future of the devices and services company?

In that interview, Thompson said he joined the Microsoft board because he had "admired Microsoft for many, many, many years." He said he considered Microsoft to be "one of the true, iconic companies in our country."

Thompson also discussed in that video interview what Microsoft's board does, as well as what his job as "lead independent director" entailed. He said he previously helped Gates, Ballmer and "Brad" (Smith, Microsoft's lead counsel, I'm assuming) create the board meeting agenda and also acted as a conduit between other independent investors and Microsoft management.

Microsoft typically holds five board meetings a year on-site, Thompson said. One of these is typically a strategy meeting, via which the board hears about planned strategies for each part of Microsoft's business. The other four meetings tend to be focused on specific operating unit issues, and lealders of those units typically speak to the board about their particular issues and "what the financial returns will be."

Thompson emphasized that the board does not devise Microsoft's strategy; it provides insight and input on behalf of the shareholders. The board's role is "more a monitoring responsibility," he stressed. The board is charged with evaluating whether strategies are correct and product teams are executing well; whether the right financial terms and plans are in place; and how Microsoft is thinking about "human capital" in order to sustain leadership.

Thompson also said during the Channel 9 interview that he was very excited about Microsoft's devices and services strategy, and that he was confident it would produce the kinds of returns shareholders have seen over the past decade.

Microsoft's next regularly-scheduled board meeting is believed to be slated for March. That's when ValueAct Holdings President Mason Morfit is expected to join Microsoft's board, bringing the total number of Microsoft board members to 11.

According to various reports, ValueAct is more interested in seeing Microsoft step up its focus on enterprise and cloud than it is in seeing the company expand into manufacturing first-party devices. So if you're Gates, Ballmer and Thompson -- all self-professed believers in the need for Microsoft to be a player in both consumer and enterprise, and both devices and services, -- it's probably time to double down on making it more difficult and less attractive for the company to dump Xbox and Bing....

Topics: Steve Ballmer: The Exit Interview, CXO, Cloud, Enterprise Software, IT Priorities, Microsoft, Tablets


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Seismic Change

    I have it on good authority that Steve Ballmer has freed up "a third of his time" to appear on Monkey Dancing With the Stars.
    Robert Hahn
  • Meet Microsoft's new board chairman John Thompson

    Congrats to John Thompson. He can lead the board in the right direction just like Bill Gates did.
    • Gates

      Gates was a better CEO than Chairman. I think that Ballmer was a mediocre CEO and Gates though a great CEO was mediocre as Chairman. I think the Thompson/Nadella change could be a change for the better. We will see.
      • Gates was too distracted

        to be a good chairman, otherwise I think he would have been.
    • Hopefully, not the same kind

      of input and direction he gave during his tenure at Symantec...what a mess that was. Lots of money, little new technology or innovation.
  • What Is Up with ZDNet?

    When a company of Microsoft's significance for the tech industry announces a new CEO (and it's not like that's happening frequently), I would expect a greater echo at ZDNet. These articles should have been ready (it's not like he was unknown before this morning), and while I've enjoyed your articles, Mary, is there no one else who noticed? What is all this stuff Larry Dignan is writing about this morning in comparison, that the editor-in-chief doesn't have time for a single article of analysis on this?
  • Dump Bing, Xbox, and Surface??

    My sense is that if Microsoft dumps their consumer focused divisions (Bing, Xbox, Xbox Music Video, Surface, Other Hardware) I will be more inclined to look elsewhere for my personal needs.

    If they lose a consumer-focus on Windows, Windows Phone and Services (MS account, Office 365, etc.) I have definitely gone.

    I like the integration including the being able to interact with my Work life on my Home devices. My work still uses Microsoft products so I won't be free of them so soon.
    • Bing

      I agree. Also, Bing is the underlying search technology in a lot of core corporate products now. I can't see how they could sell off "Bing" without either severely crippling functionality or building a new replacement.

      I think the biggest problem is people hear "Bing" and thing that means just
      • Right

        Search is a key component is advanced analytics capability and Microsoft BI is an important contributor to the company's enterprise product strategy. Bing as a consumer search engine is icing on the cake. I just can't see it going away.

        As someone who has invested heavily in Microsoft's ecosystem, including cloud, Office 365, Windows Phone and Surface, and become increasingly reliant on their outstanding integration and value, I would be highly disappointed to see Microsoft pivot away. They really seem to have gotten the formula right (for how I use and interact with technology anyway). The trajectory of improvement over the last year has seemed to justify the bet I placed on Microsoft to meet my needs as I became more accustomed to working with cloud services, particularly when Google and Apple alternatives available at the time were more mature.
  • time to change direction!

    now is the time to drop windoze in favor of Linux and Android!
    Is the board listening to me and the FOSS community?
    LlNUX Geek
    • re: Is the board listening to me and the FOSS community?

      In a word, no. Now go on upstairs to the kitchen, your mom just made you a peanut butter sandwich and she cut the crust off the way you like.
      Sir Name
  • "over a third" of his time

    "'over a third' of his time"? Is that 8 hours a day?
    • re:"over a third" of his time

      I've seen a report saying 3 days a week.
  • A former IBMer as Chairman

    Looks like a compromise between the money men and the old guard to me.
    John L. Ries
  • Who cares about the CEO....Gates Is Back....that's the real news....

    • I wouldn't be so excited for the return of the guy who...

      A. Missed the internet
      B. Had a 10-year head start on the Tablet PC and still couldn't make one anyone wanted.
  • The pieces on the, ahem…board (sorry, I HAD to) have been reset

    Now let's see how the game goes.
  • 'Consumer' issues

    I fail to understand why some products groups like Windows Phone are considered "consumer" by some commenters (I hesitate to call them commentators).

    And are these commenters suggestiing WP should die?

    Windows Phone 8 is an excellent communications device and, of course, integrates beautifully with other MS products, both on the desktop and in the cloud. If I have a Windows environment at work and even at home, why would I not want at least the opportunity of having Windows Phone 8?

    This isn't just 'consumer', this is very much something for all.

    I would be very unhappy if MS stopped support for Windows Phone. And yes, I have a WP8 (Nokia Lumia 520), which I acquired as my first smartphone. And I did look at my (teenaged) son's Android first.
  • 'Consumer' issues (2)

    PS. And if I ever wanted a tablet I would most certainly look at a Surface first.
  • Congrats to this man...

    Shows MSFT is forward-thinking.