Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer doles out his top five management tips

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer doles out his top five management tips

Summary: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer offers up his five management tips based on lessons he learned during his 13-year CEOship.


While there are some who would argue that outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer isn't someone to whom others should be listening for management advice, I disagree.


I'm not saying Ballmer didn't make mistakes during the last 13 years he occupied the Microsoft CEO hotseat. (Nor would Ballmer himself make that claim.) But I'd also say there's a reason the Microsoft board wasn't encouraging him to abandon the CEO post until fairly recently. Microsoft still makes money, and a lot of it.

I had a chance to ask Ballmer during a late November 2013 interview I had with him in Redmond for his top management tips for other CEOs. I shared his lessons learned in a contributed piece for Fortune that you can read here: "5 management tips from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer."

The five:

  1. Make sure you see the whole playing field
  2. Don't pin hopes on a single individual or "dream team"
  3. Realize there's no perfect business model perfect for every era
  4. Don't place only long-term or only short-term bets
  5. Know your limits

As an admittedly business/sales-focused guy, Ballmer's advice isn't applicable just for tech CEOs. And his lessons learned should carry weight, argued another Microsoft watcher, Wes Miller, a research analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a research outfit in Kirkland, Wash.

"Two things stand out to me as I consider Microsoft during Steve’s tenure as CEO. During the last 14 years, Microsoft was able to make huge strides into the enterprise, and make numerous product lines pervasive worldwide. Not just in terms of money or marketshare, but these technologies have an impact on business users worldwide on a daily basis," said Miller, who also worked at Microsoft from 1997 to 2004.

"To a large degree, Steve was able to do this while keeping much of the original spirit of Microsoft under (Chairman) Bill Gates alive, even after Bill left, even as the company grew dramatically in terms of employees, product lines, and financial success, and even through increasing legal and competitive challenges."

The true extent of Ballmer's hits and misses won't be evident until a few years from now, as a number of the new products and strategies he helped put in place, especially in the last year, are still in their fledgling stage. When it comes to Windows 8, Microsoft's decision to make its own Surface tablets, the company's acquisition of Nokia's mobile business -- it's still unclear how these will benefit or hinder Microsoft's customers, partners and competitors in the longer run, in spite of what the armchair quarterbacks are claiming now.

Topics: Steve Ballmer: The Exit Interview, IT Priorities, Microsoft, Leadership


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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  • Love the last statement in the article

    No let's see what happens in the next 36 months.
    • Correction

      Now let's see what happens in the next 36 months.
    • Kind of like the captain of the Titanic giving sailing lessons.

      What a joke, he broke everyone of those rules. If he had taken his own advise MS may not be heading into decline.
      • Accumulated wisdom

        Of course he broke these rules. That's a list of accumulated wisdom. If he could continue for another 20 years he's saying that these 5 suggestions would guide him. And after that additional 20 years his top 5 list might change.
  • Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer doles out his top five management tips

    That is good advice and it reflects Steve Ballmer's years of working at Microsoft as the CEO. I never could understand why there were was so much resistance against him when he was constantly making improvements at Microsoft. Microsoft Windows 8 is quite the hit on mobile devices as well as the Microsoft Surface. The latter is getting all kinds of praise for being a smaller mobile workstation. Lets see if the new CEO will be just as effective as Steve Ballmer.
    • because

      because haters gonna hate
      • uhmmmm....No!

        If by hating you mean a dislike for a leader who:

        - Single handily caused the technical brain drain at MS by installing business people in place of Technical innovators.
        - Completely missed the Mobile revolution.
        - Put out Vista and Win8 under his watch. Both market and public acceptance failures.
        - Laugh at the iPhone and said it would never sell than proceed to watch it destroy MS's mobile phone market.
        - Missed the Pad market and was years late to introduce a weak competitor.
        - His new products are continuous poorly executed knee jerk reactions to great products put out bu Apple and Google. Little to no innovation.

        So if disliking him for these massive strategic errors which may ultimately doom MS makes one a hater, then call me a hater.
        • Of all the mistakes listed by KBabcock...

          ...mistake #1 is the root of all evil.

          Ballmer may have had a great business head (as demonstrated by years of continuous fat profits), but when it came to his people policies, he fared miserably. Picking business heads over technical people was only one aspect of the problem - his fundamental blunder was to treat people like mini-businesses. This led to the nightmare called stack-ranking and the ruthless elimination of good and great people (Ray Ozzie???), simply because they couldn't master the intricate annual political games at the time of annual performance review.

          In this horrible bloodbath, Lisa Brummel was his chief hatchet-man, and Kevin Turner (a.k.a. "the butcher of WalMart") was the oily, smooth-talking used-car salesman who tried to convince everyone that it was all for the greater good.

          And when a leader in the position of Ballmer gets his people strategy wrong, it inevitably backfires and drags the company into the pits, but it's not so obvious because the decline is slow and insidious, destroying the company from within like a slow cancer.

          The new CEO has a nightmarish task ahead trying to undo the damage - it will take years and the new incumbent will end up taking the hit for the outcome of all these bad HR policies. Good luck to the poor sacrificial lamb!
    • If the best you can say is to claim windows 8 is a hit

      on mobile devices and getting some sort of praise, then his tenure was a complete failure. Not trying to be negative here, but its just a fact. After being so years behind, poo-pooing the competition and then having all that time to cherry pick and learn what to do and not to do by watching the competition, it would be simply criminal not to have decent devices.

      But that's only a small part of the battle. What we have seen is that the nicest device has nothing necessarily to do with sales winner. The iphone is assumed to be so popular because its so perfect and awesome. Well then how do we explain the success of samsung galaxy series, which is usually panned for seeming to have cheap construction and much disliked 'touch-wiz'? And then the poor sales of the HTC one, widely considered to be equal to or better than iPhone in quality?

      Answer - its all about factors *besides* simply the "awesomeness" of the phone itself as taken in a vacuum. Vision, timing, marketing, luck, project managment etc. And Ballmer blew it on every level!
      • and I almost forgot - pricing!

      • Those outcomes are because of something most companies don't get

        ... that Apple, after many false starts got right: it's not about the gadget, it's about the ecosystem. The iPod had iTunes and all the music publishers that Apple signed up; the iPhone had all the service providers selling the same device with Apple in control of the user experience, and the iPad gained them both. Consumers know that if they buy one of Apple's products they are buying into a massive and coordinated ecosystem of apps, support, and user base. No one wants to be an outlier when hundreds of dollars are at stake. Microsoft has come late to the party but with Win 8's "across all devices" marketing story, they are getting some traction. Still Apple stole a march of nearly a decade.
      • That's not the best I can say

        Its just one of many things I can say. I got to the first sentence then stopped reading your comment.
      • Some people consider timing...

        About whom the last player is at the table, not the first to go all in. There is much to be said about ability and at least as much to be said about Stability. Businesses do not always have to be first with technology, consumers are more fickle. It seems to me MS is focused on their bread and butter, while trying to mix in the healthy consumer side.

        If they introduced a new product or technology every week trying to find a hit, you might call them visionless?
    • "Lets see if the new CEO will be just as effective as Steve Ballmer."

      I very much hope they will be.
    • The so called "improvements" did not work.

      Stock prices flat. Losing markets, failing in new markets.

      Windows 8 is quite a hit... on the floor.

      Surface, the first round also failed. The second round? don't know yet, but it doesn't look very good.
  • Good advice, hard to implement

    Microsoft is fortunate to have cash reserves, long term thinking, and willingness to persevere. Most companies are just way too short term thinking.
    Sean Foley
  • Interesting tips...

    Interesting tips...I would love to know the back story behind tip #2 "Don't pin hopes on a single individual or "dream team". What about repeatedly pinning your hopes on a partners that doesn't deliver (think Intel, HP)?

    I wonder how Ballmer feels about the large number of executives and engineering talent that has walk out Microsoft doors during his tenure. Any regrets?

    I am gathering from Mary Jo's interviews that as bad as Vista was publicly, the internal damage to Microsoft was far worst and Microsoft still has recovered from it.
    • Wrong perspective

      I know you want to bash Microsoft for some unknown reason, but none of your points hold true. Vista paved the way for Windows 7 and new technologies that are prospering today. Microsoft has grown tremendously in profits during Ballmers tenure. Recent 2013 was a great year. Forbes rates Microsoft an excellent company to work for. So bottom line; you must have been burned somehow because your perspective if way off. Sorry.
      Sean Foley
    • Not sure I agree with some things you've said

      "I wonder how Ballmer feels about the large number of executives and engineering talent that has walk out Microsoft doors during his tenure. Any regrets?"

      Probably no more then The CEO's of Apple and Google, who've had a large numbers of executives and engineering talent that has walk out their doors during their tenures. As a matter of fact, the fact that they've been where they were at for so long gets other companies offering sweet deals to entice them to their side.

      That's the nature of any business.

      As for the "internal damage to Microsoft was far worst and Microsoft still has recovered from it." I'm not sure where you read into that, as I've not felt that was the take away from the interviews.
    • Longhorn...

      Is the reference for number 2, he has said as much. Also, the life cyle of it.