10 people who should but won't replace Steve Ballmer at Microsoft

By Fritz Nelson , written on August 26, 2013

From The News Desk

Help Wanted: CEO for massive turnaround of storied global corporation. Must embrace change, get mobile, web, and cloud. Experience with antitrust law helpful. Thick skin critical. Must like rain. No yellers! Compensation: insane.

For the next several months reporters like me will speculate about Microsoft’s next CEO. No matter how you feel about Microsoft, this is an important decision. Microsoft touches every part of the technology ecosystem, partnering with hardware manufacturers, providing underlying infrastructure, creating the applications that run our businesses and homes, developing systems that run the games we play, the phones a couple of us use, and much more.

Microsoft isn't just our industry’s whipping boy, although it often seems to be just that. It is a Fortune 50 company. It deserves -- indeed, it needs -- a top flight CEO. Microsoft should demand the very best.

There will be the temptation to look from within, and certainly there are viable candidates, from Kevin Turner (chief operating officer) to Julie Larson-Green (vice-president of the devices and studios group) to Tony Bates (executive vice president of the business development and evangelism group) and many others -- loyal, smart executives, all.

There will be the temptation to return to names like Steven Sinofsky (former president of the Windows division), Ray Ozzie (former chief software architect), Stephen Elop (former head of the business division, responsible for Microsoft Office), and other dearly departed, but I suspect we've moved on and so have they. As talented as they are, and as Microsofty as they've been, perhaps they were also part of the problem.

Microsoft will also be tempted to look at the usual suspects, the next-in-lines at several other large technology organizations, like IBM's Steve Mills, Cisco's Rob Lloyd, or HP's Dave Donatelli, a victim of HP’s recent upheaval and ouster at the hand of Meg Whitman. Maybe Scott Forstall, Apple’s banished iOS chief will be considered, given the work Microsoft needs to apply to mobile. But all of those, too, would be shooting too low.

Microsoft needs someone with experience, with gravitas, with proven skills in ruthlessly examining an organization's structure, products, and talent, and moving quickly and decisively to change, even dramatically, even amid controversy and skepticism. It needs a leader who can quell, or even excise dissent, and build a positive culture. The former beast of Redmond needs a leader who can patiently create a strategy and articulate the vision unequivocally, then demonstrate with the right amount of transparency how Microsoft is executing while also backing that up with results.

That’s a tall task, and surely one of those usual suspects is capable of delivering, but Microsoft should not be afraid to look for and expect the pinnacle of corporate leadership.

The company should look across other iconic organizations.

Ballmer is leaving Microsoft at just the right time, when the company needs to transform its model around mobility and the cloud, and stop relying so heavily on Windows. I’ve been a defender of Microsoft’s turnaround strategy, saying that although many of Ballmer’s moves came later than they should have, at least he’s acted to diversify the company’s business. This ran contrary to his natural inclinations. I remember in early April, 2010, walking into Ballmer’s office with my brand-spanking-new iPad propped on an attachable keyboard, preparing to take notes, and hearing Ballmer sneer (yes, it can be heard): “If you work hard enough, you can turn anything into a PC.” Of course, Microsoft hasn't been able to, and that is, I suppose, part of its problem.

What follows is a list of executives who would make good successors for Steve Ballmer but either won't take the job or won't be asked.

1. John Chambers, Cisco CEO. Sure, he has his own somewhat-iconic American tech company to run, and it’s a bit of a turnaround job in its own right. But Chambers, for all of his folksy talk, has been great at a few key things. He 's quick to assess damage and change course, admitting when his bets haven't paid off, and transparent about his company's business goals, and how it will achieve them. Chambers is fantastic at ensuring that Cisco's business goals are reflected in executive compensation plans, and fond of telling the public how his executives make their incentives. He's dynamic and charming, and doesn't need to scream and yell to get you to believe him, talks incessantly to customers, and is usually ahead of trends, maybe sometimes too far ahead (like video, Internet of Things). In other words, he is the anti-Ballmer.

2. Safra Catz, Oracle President and CFO. Safra Catz is equal parts tough, smart, and impatient. I'm not sure how much she really understands the intricacies of the technology, but then again, I'm not always sure Ballmer did either. If Microsoft is looking for someone with the backbone to assess the business, make changes without apology, and drive them through an organization, Catz would make an interesting choice. Unfortunately you get the impression that Catz is completely uncomfortable being in the public eye, although when she is, her brilliance and wit shine through. There are reasons she's a number two, rather than a CEO. But she sure would make a few technology CEOs quake in their boots.

3. Paul Maritz, Pivotal CEO. Maritz, among those in this list, is a more traditional choice perhaps. His pedigree makes him an actual, viable candidate. He ran the platforms and developer groups at Microsoft for many years, and was considered an elite member of the company’s inner circle. Before Microsoft, Maritz worked at Intel. At Microsoft and Intel, Maritz earned his chops working with developers, which is an area Microsoft really needs to shore up. Most important, though, Martiz was CEO of VMware, so he understands the needs of the enterprise, from the desktop to the data center, and most especially the cloud. He has had a very short stint running Pivotal, the developer platform group spun out of VMware, but this is a seasoned executive with incredible versatility, and an extremely loyal following. Of course, when Maritz was at Microsoft, he was largely responsible for all the assets that are dragging Microsoft's business down -- not that it’s his fault, though. Besides having been there and done that, Maritz just started in his new job.

4. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO. Want to outdo all of the attention being heaped on Yahoo and Marissa Mayer these days? Try to extract Sheryl Sandberg, another former Google executive, and perhaps an even bigger catch than Mayer, although though I see Sandberg posing for a spread in Wired rather than Vogue. Is she ready to be CEO? Duh. If Microsoft is looking for someone experienced and mature, yet also served her time in risk-taking, brash cultures (and here, I’m talking about the U.S. Treasury Dept, where she served as Chief of Staff, not Google and Facebook), the company could hardly find someone with a better profile and body of work. She's also ambitious, having sought a greater leadership role at Google and considered a role at The Washington Post before taking Facebook's COO job. Imagine a technology world run largely by Sandberg at Microsoft, Meg Whitman at HP and Virginia Rometty at IBM.

5. Marc Benioff, CEO. There's nothing Marc Benioff wants to do but run, a company he has taken to enormous heights, and one that defines success in the modern age of cloud. His mercurial personality and brilliance, his sense of theater, and his unmistakable understanding not only of technology shifts but the low, undetectable rumble that precedes those shifts, have always guided Salesforce several steps ahead of everyone else. Is there a better description of what Microsoft desperately needs?

6. Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity CEO; the hype behind Hyperloop; former co-founder of PayPal. Sure, Musk is untouchable. His legend grows by the day, or by the idea, or by the size of the idea. But that’s what makes him immediately desirable. He seems a man without limits. Again, is there a better description of what Microsoft craves?

7. Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman. Why would an accomplished executive go from Google to Microsoft, perhaps its biggest competitor? He wouldn't. Schmidt has served his time at companies like Sun and Novell (two old-school Microsoft rivals), not just Google, and all of that experience probably makes him the single technology executive most acutely aware of Microsoft's weaknesses, and the best person to help address them. His time at all of those companies, but especially Google, gives him the experience in cloud and mobile, and the knowledge of how to build a dynamic, innovative, risk-taking culture. Is there a better description . . . oh, hell, you get the point.

8. Marc Andreessen, Andreessen-Horowitz, co-founder, general partner. Come on, wouldn't it be ironic if the man who battled Microsoft’s hegemony, whose company, Netscape, was choked to death by Bill Gates, came to run his old nemesis? Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman could join him, and they could argue about how to truly make all of Microsoft's code open source. Alas, he doesn't need the money, or the headaches, and is much more comfortable in a world of startups. Plus, Andreesseen, if he were put in charge of Microsoft, might run it into the ground just out of spite.

9. Alan Mulally, Ford CEO. Ford is definitely an iconic company. More so than Microsoft, so there's little doubt that Mulally is staying right where he is. This is a man who helped Ford turn its business around and avoid a government bailout during the latest recession. There was wide speculation that Mulally's fingerprints were all over the latest Microsoft restructuring. And if there's an automobile executive who understands and embraces technology, it's Mulally, who regularly attends and keynotes CES, holds a private dinner with the technology press, and built a team of technology-transfixed executives who view Ford cars as modern day software platforms. While he'd be ridiculously foolish to leave Ford, if he were able to turn Microsoft around, it might cement Mulally’s place in American executive history.

10. Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO. Instead of always getting disrupted, become the disruptor. Hastings has serious (scary) technology chops, having created software debugging tools (his company was acquired by Rational Software, which is now part of IBM), and Netflix is a playground for some of the world's most sophisticated technology. He could really give Microsoft a kick into the future.

And just for the hell of it:

  • Phil Jackson, former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls, owner of 13 world championship rings. He knows how to handle egos, he's a winner, and looking for work.
  • Former SAP and HP CEO Leo Apotheker. He’ll make Ballmer’s time at the helm look epic.
  • Sarah Palin. Because, hey, Meg Whitman wasn't even a governor and got the HP job.
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