Microsoft's CEO short list: So flawed

Microsoft's CEO short list: So flawed

Summary: Microsoft's handful of candidates to replace CEO Steve Ballmer is far from perfect. After all, Microsoft is a bit complicated and a tech conglomerate in many respects.


Microsoft has reportedly narrowed its CEO short list to about five people and all of them are far from perfect and it's unclear how they'll navigate the company.

According to Reuters, Microsoft has the following candidates in mind to replace CEO Steve Ballmer. This list isn't much different from what Mary Jo Foley reported weeks ago. What this list shows---if anything---is that Microsoft isn't exactly thinking outside the box for leadership. Here's the short version:


Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally. Mulally (right) is by far the most seasoned executive in the running. If Mulally took over at Microsoft he can say he ran three American icon companies: Boeing, Ford and Microsoft. That's quite a feat. But Mulally has a few trouble spots. First, he's not from the software industry. On one hand, that reality means he brings in fresh eyes. The downside is there might be a long learning curve. Mulally does know culture and large companies fairly well.

Age could be another issue for Mulally, but that worry would be offset by experience for many. Mulally is a generation before Chairman Bill Gates and Ballmer. He has reached the age in which the U.S. federal government considers appropriate to receive retirement benefits, and is three years past the mandatory retirement age of tech peer Intel. 

Perhaps the biggest issue is that Mulally, a friend of Ballmer's, may be locked into a device strategy many analysts and investors question. Would Mulally break up Microsoft if it made sense?

Former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop. If Elop was named Microsoft CEO it would likely be viewed as a major disappointment. Maybe Elop wouldn't deserve that reaction, but perception is reality. Elop didn't save Nokia by any stretch. Elop, an alum of the software giant, represents more of the same for Microsoft and wouldn't be considered much of a visionary.

Great Debate: Microsoft's next CEO: Is an insider Redmond's best bet?

Skype CEO Tony Bates. Bates would be an interesting choice. With his Skype experience, Bates at least represents a more futuristic view of Microsoft. One issue is that Microsoft is a massive company and resembles a conglomerate in many respects. Could Bates manage something as large and complicated as Microsoft? Perhaps, Bates was head of Cisco's enterprise unit before joining Skype. I'd rate Bates as the best consensus pick for the Microsoft CEO gig. 

Satya Nadella, Microsoft's cloud and enterprise chief. Nadella would be an interesting pick since his unit represents the future of Microsoft. Like Bates, it's unclear whether Nadella could manage the sprawling software giant. Nadella could bring a new vision to Microsoft and may not be locked into a device strategy. And since Nadella sits in the enterprise unit, he would know how it feels to be Microsoft's cash cow and used to fund projects formed due to Google and Apple envy. Nadella could be persuaded that a breakup makes sense.

CSC CEO Mike Lawrie. Lawrie is a turnaround artist, but doesn't fit the bill with Microsoft. Simply put, Microsoft isn't flawed enough for a turnaround person. Microsoft is far from a wreck and a turnaround artist would probably be frustrated. The risk of blowing up the company to try something new is too great. After all, Microsoft rakes in a lot of dough.

In the end, Microsoft's short list is a bit flawed, but frankly it may not matter. If any new CEO is locked into Ballmer's device strategy and hamstrung by Gates when it comes to being a visionary the chances for success from big bets is slim anyway.

Topics: CXO, Enterprise Software, Microsoft

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  • If not one of these, then who?

    Sick and tired of "armchair CEO" bloggers criticizing decisions made, or about to be made, with no "better" solutions being offered.

    You have a better CEO in mind Larry? Are you thinking "out of the box"?
    • Punditry is part of his job

      And MS' board is still free to make any decisions its members think appropriate (they can even take Larry's article into consideration if they think his comments are useful). And I have no reason to believe that any of this is likely to injure anyone.
      John L. Ries
      • 7 flags, but no responses

        Would someone care to tell me why I'm wrong?
        John L. Ries
        • the vote & flag counters have gone bezerk

          Jumping up and down wildly, sometimes in synchronicity with comments above and below. Kinda entertaining...
          • Definitely entertaining

            And you're clearly popular today (maybe we have dueling Sibyls).
            John L. Ries
          • The Voting system's being exploited.

            From what I'm getting, it's probably from the same guy who hangs around the Apple articles, artificially inflating the votes of Apple-positive comments.

            Just look around here, and look at all of the flags and up-votes around.

            The comments that say something negative about Microsoft are given a huge boost in votes, whereas those with something neutral or positive are downvoted.

            Look at Said Enough's comment, for example.

            How did he, a blatant troll speaking off-topic, manage to get over 30 up-votes and over 60 flags?

            This is beyond pathetic.
        • Flag

          Has come to be interpreted as "I disagree with you" rather than "this post contains spam or objectionable content" as it is meant to. Zdnet need to get a +/- for the voting instead. No female candidates at all? Disappointing.
    • I agree

      if the premise of the article is all the supposed nominees are flawed, ( i assume larry has not seen the "list") they why not suggest who think would be a not flawed candidate? For out side the box I would suggest Scott Forstall. he did have a good run at that other big tech company.
    • Where's Ray when you need him?

      The perfect guy would have been the guy they brought over to do just that, however, Ray Ozzie got tired of waiting for you know who to get out of the way! Being drinking buddies with Bill at Harvard sure gets you a long way.
    • A better choice for CEO?


      Ray Ozzie, the creative one Ballmer probably kicked out. He didn't fit into the corporate culture.

      That's a big plus.

      Anyone Ballmer likes? No.
    • Ya, its a bit much.

      The title is stated with such conviction:
      "Microsoft's CEO short list: So flawed"

      Makes it sound like the potential choices so far are beyond hope.

      You read the article and lo and behold, none of them actually sound like they are beyond hope.

      "Clearly less than perfect" sounds right; "So flawed" sounds like the flaws are the candidates main features.
  • Was this the reason they called you in to help with the process?

    Just curious...
  • Any CEO will have to

    As a MSFT alum, any CEO from the outside will have to sacrifice some lambs -- SVP lambs -- to show he has the run of hte place. Otherwise, the fiefdoms will undermine him. These guys are all too well paid to 'care' about hte new CEO unless the gravy train stops.
    • Maybe not, depending upon who is selected

      Mulally, for instance, did not do that when he went to Ford. Sure, some folks left, but almost all were of their own accord. Once he set the directions and the expectations, most of those executives who left did so because the changes were not to their liking, or felt they had better opportunities elsewhere. In Mulally's words, they "self-selected" to exit the Ford Motor Co. he wanted to create.
    • Re: any CEO from the outside will have to sacrifice some lambs

      As long as he or she brings the mint jelly sacrificing some lambs could go well.
  • Is this all just your opinion?

    Or is it backed up by some sort of polling data?
    Sam Wagner
    • Polling data? I hope not.

      Polling data does not help in finding the best President and it sure won't help finding the next CEO of Microsoft.

      The best wo/man for the job is not someone near retirement though. Nor is it a former "softie". It MIGHT BE an existing "softie" but that too is fraught with danger.

      I'd definitely go with an outsider, a whiz-kid in his/her forties would be ideal - but they need to have vision and courage.
      M Wagner
      • The thing is...

        ...if the board thought that MS was on course, an insider would have been a no-brainer, and the long drawn-out search process wouldn't have happened (Steve Ballmer would probably been allowed to nominate his own successor). Indeed, the smartest thing to have done in that case would have been to announce Mr. Ballmer's retirement and name his successor at the same time (and if Windows 8 had done better, maybe that's how it would have happened).

        Apparently, such is not the case.

        The board could still bring Ray Ozzie back, but I don't know how good of an administrator he is.
        John L. Ries
        • The problem with Ballmer...

          Ballmer is not technical, he's more of a business type. Technology companies are successful with a technological visionary at the helm, which is why Nadella is the only one in this list that has a chance of being a good fit. Ballmer was okay for a while since companies can coast on autopilot for a while with a guy like him that understands the business, as long as he listens to the technical guys around him. I thik he failed to do that with Windows 8, which is why some of those folks left and he is now being forced out. An MBA is just not a technical visionary. An outsider might be just as bad, even with a technical background if they don't follow the magic formula that allowed Microsoft to dominate in the 90s. I'm hoping it's Nadella and then Scott Guthrie takes over STB.
  • I wonder if Pepsi's CEO is available...

    ..if Microsoft is really bent on following Apple's footsteps, why not making some of Apple's biggest mistakes, too!