Steve Ballmer: ‘Basketball Is Harder Than Business’

ballmerFormer Microsoft honcho turned Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer was at the Wall Street Journal‘s D.Live digital conference in Laguna Beach, CA this week, where he was characteristically provocative about business, high-tech, regulation, and of course, basketball.

He is a man of two passions, basketball and high-tech, and he quickly discovered they share many of the same ups and downs. But don’t bother complaining about regulation to Ballmer. To those who say it is unduly burdensome, he said, “try playing a game where everyone knows every metric about you that matters. Every move on the court is regulated, every play is known by everyone else. I don’t have one statistic my million of fans don’t have. When they see our performance, they want results every 24 seconds, not the next quarter.”

In fact, the former Microsoft boss felt that some regulation is healthy when it comes to high-tech. Just as he dealt with the Justice Department Anti-Trust Division during his tenure as Microsoft CEO, Facebook and Google need to effectively address their challenges in privacy and national security. They also must “own” their ad business. There is no excuse, for Russian trolls disguised as activists denigrating Monsanto on Facebook as a way to compete in the agriculture business.

He believes these companies must start to develop policies that meet the concerns of private citizens. The result may seem like a hindrance on growth to some extent, but as Microsoft learned, Ballmer now admits, it stimulated innovation.

Ballmer shared his playbook on how to deal with regulators. The lesson he learned from his days at Microsoft was “engage early and avoid a lot of commotion. The worst outcome is for the Congress to regulate by passing laws because politicians are too beholden to mob hysteria. Regulators bring together the expertise necessary for thoughtful discussion about the challenges and the downsides. Companies need to understand the regulatory environment and the reason it is so valued by the populace, and work with it. If it costs a few cents per share, raise prices.” Ballmer advocates.

When it comes to the bigger issues the world is dealing with today, Ballmer’s concern isn’t Trump’s rhetoric or the Democrats taking over Congress. He is worried about  the complete lack of stability in our approach to policy making. He feels that we fail to make coherent decisions because our time frames are so constrained. We also play a very one-sided game that prevents good outcomes. “Patience is not a bad thing nor is compromise.”

In that regard, Ballmer feels politics should be left at the door of the enterprise. “You should not know your colleague’s political preference any more than you know your neighbor’s on the next block.” When we come to work, Ballmer says, our political views are nothing but distractions from our careers.

When asked about his legacy, he said he failed to heed his own advice: “never replace the legend, replace the guy who replaced the legend,” speaking of his predecessor, Bill Gates, and his successor, Satya Nadella. “Satya has done a great job. My legacy and one which I am proud of is not just that we tripled profits, we had no enterprise business to speak of and now it powers Microsoft. The real legacy is that a leader followed because of a good succession plan, and the results are clear. Did I make mistakes? Of course, we always do. You have to learn to gut it out, just like in sports, and then come back.”

Ballmer also reflected on the biggest challenge that basketball shares with business—accountability. “It is all about the product, just like running Microsoft. In the sports business, you sell tickets by winning championships. That’s the focus. After every game, I am accountable. I can’t fix it down the road two quarters later. The accountability is frightening.”

Finally, when asked what about how he will compete against LA Lakers phenom, LeBron James, Ballmer said, “I am but a lowly owner, he is but a god.”

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