June 24, 2021

Questions for Microsoft as It Nears a Crossroad

But Mr. Ballmer and Microsoft’s board have been considering the possibility of his retirement for some time. Still, because of Mr. Ballmer’s larger-than-life personality, the board’s reluctance to push back and the company’s recent product and financial problems, finding a new chief executive for Microsoft was never going to resemble a cut-and-dry, business-school case study, according to people with knowledge of the company.

“No one is an obvious candidate,” said Michael A. Cusumano, a professor of business and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies strategy in the computer software industry. “All the really interesting people who were in the company over the last dozen years who might have been have left. I also find it hard to imagine they could bring an outsider in. Microsoft is known for having quite a lot of powerful groups within the company and they make life very difficult for anyone who tries to oversee them.”

Succession planning is a delicate issue for many companies, particularly one like Microsoft, where Mr. Ballmer has been a senior employee since 1980 and chief executive since 2000, and his longtime friend, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, remains chairman.

“Particularly for a person like Ballmer, who really is one of the founders, leaving is almost like death, so it’s extremely difficult to have an orderly process,” said Joseph L. Bower, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “It requires a very grown-up relationship between the chief executive and his board.”

Industry insiders almost immediately began to place bets on which executives inside and outside Microsoft — and even outside the technology industry — could be tapped. The decision will go a long way to determining whether Microsoft will successfully transition to tech’s future of mobile computing and computing in a virtual cloud of data-storage devices.

But at the moment, at least, the betting cards are virtually empty.

Even though Mr. Ballmer had indicated he was going to retire when the youngest of his children went to college, which was in about two more years, “I think people thought Ballmer would maybe die with his boots on in that role,” Mr. Cusumano added.

Developing a succession plan is one of a board’s chief responsibilities, but only half of companies actively groom executives, according to a 2010 study by Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance and Heidrick Struggles, the executive search firm that is leading Microsoft’s search. Boards spend only an average two hours a year on succession planning, the study found.

“When you have such strong personalities as Gates and Ballmer, is the board really proactive with them, or is it more of a caretaker board?” said David Larcker, director of corporate governance research at Stanford University’s business school, who worked on the study.

Though it might not be obvious outside the boardroom, Microsoft’s directors have been planning the transition, according to a person briefed on the board’s meetings who was not authorized to speak about them publicly.

Discussions have been happening for a decade, the person said, and intensified in 2010. Several months ago, Mr. Ballmer suggested to the board that it was time to begin a formal succession process, the person said, and told directors on Wednesday that he would announce his retirement.

Mr. Ballmer and the board have discussed the attributes they want in the next chief executive and have been appraising internal and external executives who might be candidates. Over the last 18 to 24 months, Mr. Ballmer has personally met with several outside executives, including people outside the tech industry with experience transforming very large companies, according to the person knowledgeable about the board’s work.

Nick Wingfield contributed reporting.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/technology/questions-for-microsoft-as-it-nears-a-crossroad.html?partner=rss&emc=rss