After Ballmer, What?

Since he announced his intention to step down as CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer has triggered a world wide betting game as to who will succeed him. Microsoft’s board has appointed a special committee to help decide if the next chief executive will be an insider like Julie Larson-Green, or the prodigal Stephen Elop of Nokia. (Ladbrokes, the London betting agents give Elop a 5 to 1 advantage.) But the central issue of concern is what the company needs to do to transform since it lost its dominate position in computing. Microsoft once ruled the tech world. Now it’s one player among many. Will the new CEO have his or her options foreclosed?

The Seattle tech giant has only had two leaders in its 33 years and Bill Gates is still on the board. Ballmer’s decision to retire comes at a time when the company also faces a strategy reset. It followed news of the company’s $7 bn deal acquiring Nokia which in a single stroke turned former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop who is currently Nokia’s CEO from an external candidate to and inside candidate. In a report by the Wall Street Journal’s Don Clark, “some of the most fundamental decisions facing Microsoft already seem settled.” Given that most incoming CEOs normally don’t like to have limited options and prefer a free hand in setting strategy this may turn the job into something of a hard sell.

Microsoft has yet to face the succession questions that challenge most big companies. Founder Bill Gates handpicked Ballmer as his replacement 13 years ago. Gates will be joined on the committee to select a new chief executive by John Thompson, the former CEO of Symantec, Chuck Noski, the former CFO of Bank of America, and Steve Luczo, the CEO of Seagate—all Microsoft board members—with help from executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles. Both internal and external candidates will be considered. Some sources say that those outsiders being considered include eBay’s John Donahoe, and even a former board member such as Netflix’s Reed Hastings. Then there’s Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook Chief Operating Officer. Sandberg is the person who has arguably made the biggest impact on Facebook’s growth next to Mark Zuckerberg.

Elop’s chances are far from assured despite sentiment that the deal is the best solution for a mobile-device operation that already relied heavily on Microsoft Windows technology. Not very long ago Finnish investors referred to him as “Stephen Eflop.”

Yet he did run Microsoft’s profitable business division, and is the only executive in the global handset business to exclusively use the Microsoft mobile platform. (Nokia now sells nearly every Windows phone that is sold world-wide.)




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