Microsoft's Next CEO - Suddenly a Disaster Waiting to Happen!

By Tony Rizzo January 14, 2014

Earlier this morning my colleague Peter Bernstein and I were asked by our editorial director, Erik Linask, who should be come Microsoft’s next CEO. Peter, being far more astute at every turn than ourselves, immediately shouted out that IBM’s Watson would be the perfect Microsoft CEO.

Hmm. Peter may be on to something here. Given that Bill Gates remains on the Microsoft board and apparently has taken on a position that suggests his wishes and desires count for more than his current 4 percent stake in the company might otherwise grant him, and given that Steve Ballmer will apparently also hang around for a bit longer, the new CEO is going to have full hands dealing with them. IBM’s Watson may have just what it takes to deal with Gates and Ballmer. Anything less could prove disastrous.

Gates is reportedly seeking a “visionary tech” person, someone who the vaunted upper echelon techies of Microsoft can relate to on their own terms, and someone who is able to understand the nuances of building, say, operating system components around the latest and greatest low energy microprocessors – someone who can decode machine language on the fly.

Ballmer on the other hand is no doubt desirous of someone who won’t say bad things about his latest re-org, who won’t set in motion the wheels to dismantle it and reassemble it yet again, and who will protect the foundations of Microsoft’s ancient streams of revenues with steadfast solemnity – as Ballmer himself has done over the last decade and a half.

Regardless of paying lip service to taking the company forward into the mobile and device markets with renewed fervor and tireless enthusiasm, what Gates and Ballmer want are simply more of the same things they brought to Microsoft when they were younger and had little wisdom. Alan Mulally would have given them these things and wisdom – including deep experience running a huge enterprise, but Mulally apparently failed the on the fly machine language decode exam. We remain strong in our belief that Mulally was told he was out of the running, which would of course require him to stand loudly and clearly by his Ford role.

Where to turn? We don’t believe that the internal crop of candidates have the necessary future-filled visions to guide Microsoft forward as a mobility and devices player.

  • Perhaps Tony Bates might have filled the role, but there is simply no way he strikes us as suitable to guard the ancient revenue streams.
  • Satya Nadella is an enterprise guy – as much as he would certainly be able to guard the ancient revenue streams he would be just as out of place on the other end of things – the visionary pushing mobility and devices.
  • There is also external candidate Paul Maritz, CEO of Pivotal, whose name keeps popping up. Really? Maritz is old school Microsoft, where he grew up in the 1990s – enough said.

So We Are Left With Stephen Elop and…IBM’s Watson

Stephen Elop is a very interesting guy – obviously (or not so obviously, but we think so) he has the wherewithal to at least begin moving Microsoft forward into mobility and devices in a very real way. Yes, he was slow – too slow we believe – to move with Nokia on mobile device offerings in his early Nokia days, but we believe he has picked up a significant head of steam over the last twelve months. Certainly enough we believe to at least offer some suitable semblance of a go-forward vision. And if we choose to look deeper we see a former Ballmer lieutenant who ran one of those huge ancient revenue streams, so he has that end of it in covered as well.

What Elop may not have in hand however is enough kick-ass motivation to truly take Microsoft in startling new directions that would delight consumers and the enterprise, build true investor confidence that truly new things and will soon be on the way, or be able to develop the deep well of vision-laden thought leadership (from both himself and the senior team he would need to build around him) that would evolve Microsoft into the visionary tech powerhouse it needs to be. Too much perhaps of the “acquiesce to Bill and Steve” to be truly effective.

It is a damnably tall order. Mulally would have been an effective caretaker CEO who we believe would have been able to build a leadership team to take Microsoft forward on these fronts and who would have established an environment and ecosystem from which a true next young futurist CEO would emerge. Mulally would not have been in it for a long run – he would have simply seen Microsoft through to the other side of where it needs to be.

If only he had passed Gate’s machine language decoding exam! A damnable failure that was.

So then, we are left with IBM’s Watson. In truth, one has to like the choice.

  • Watson will ace the machine language translation test, of course;
  • Watson would have no hard feelings to overcome and would be able to serve as if it had multiple hands in place – no hands-full scenario here;
  • Watson would be able to learn everything there is to know about Microsoft’s former success and would thus be totally equipped to protect the ancient revenue streams. It would digest, analyze and quantify –whoops sorry, this is Microsoft so let’s change “quantify” to “codify” – everything that makes Apple, Google, Facebook and a few others so successful these days and create all the necessary thought leadership – written possibly in various styles – literally in minutes;
  • Watson would then be set loose to deeply examine the successes of the ancient revenue streams and to discover the nearly undiscoverable connections between them and the futuristic and visionary thought leadership it will have developed and put in place;
  • Watson would then dispassionately (but with plenty of simulated passion) piece together the necessary product outlines, product development plans, organizational structures, required cool marketing strategies and aggressive sales plans (keep in mind it will have in hand all the ancient revenue stream secrets on the sales side) necessary to ensure Microsoft delivers visionary and delightful devices and mobile solutions that will bring back the A+ game and Microsoft’s former stature;
  • Gates and Ballmer would probably not be able to argue with Watson – even Gates would be too slow (though not by much) to win the debate;
  • In the process of becoming Microsoft’s perfect CEO Watson will, finally, also create the next Watson to take over as CEO for the next generation;
  • The only question left open would be whether or not to make Watson a board member.

What’s not to like?

Well, for one thing we’ve heard that some of the companies that IBM is already working with to further the development of Watson in order to turn it into a truly useful in-the-field entity (what else can we say, Watson “is” an entity we think) believe it is too cumbersome to work with and requires far more elite resources to “train” than was previously thought or understood to be the case. In other words, Watson might be the right entity to take over as Microsoft’s CEO but it might unfortunately take ten years to make it the right CEO. Bummer!

We are of course sort of joking here, but the list of things that we note Watson would be able to do are in fact very real – the real next CEO will have to effectively execute on all of the things we’ve outlined for Watson to handle.

So we’re back to…Stephen Elop. But not by himself. Yes, Elop should have the CEO title, but we absolutely believe a model based on establishing a senior team of SVPs along the lines that Jobs built at Apple and that Tim Cook continues to foster there will be necessary to drive Microsoft forward. We hugely prefer to lean in the direction of Elop being able to provide the needed mobile and devices vision. The real challenge will be in building the executive team, finding a Microsoft version of Jony Ive and then letting them run unfettered into tomorrow’s new worlds.

Anything less than this will surely lead to disaster.




Edited by Cassandra Tucker

TechZone360 Senior Editor

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