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What Kind of Leader Does Microsoft Really Need?

In recent weeks, speculation about who will succeed Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft has become intense. The top pick among possible insiders is Enterprise chief Satya Nadella. But what about the dark horse candidates? And what about finding the kind of leader the tech giant really needs?

In her blog for AllThingsD, analyst Kara Swisher asks: “what is behind the intense speculation over who will take over for Ballmer?” She notes that Ford’s Alan Mulally remains in the pole position for the job “with the idea that he will be more a ‘caretaker’ type CEO, whose deep experience and inspirational charisma will get the company on the right path, while also training up a number of internal candidates to eventually take over from him.”

In addition to Satya Nadella, other contenders include: COO Kevin Turner, strategy exec Tony Bates and Nokia’s Stephen Elop. Opinions differ both inside and out as to whether this lineup has what is needed to lead Microsoft into the next wave of technology and market complexity.

But what is needed, exactly? Proponents of Mulally say he has a clear ability to manage a complex organization with many moving parts and masses of employees. The minus? He’s not enough of a visionary geek who can grasp the massive changes moving through the digital landscape and also understand the complexity of the tech itself. As Swisher notes, “He can’t program. He doesn’t Snapchat. But he sure can give a corker of a speech.”

Microsoft, she adds, might need such a caretaker leader as it moves away from its longtime leaders, Ballmer and also co-founder and chairman Bill Gates. Perhaps splitting the CEO position into two jobs with an insider and outsider serving as co-leaders echos how some tech companies including SAP deal with it.

Some find this kind of talk absurd. Tapping Mulally for a caretaker role, they maintain that it is an insult to the CEO who created one of the great turnarounds and transformations of the last half century. He might be just the right person to cut the non-value add products, refocus the company on it’s core competencies, drive quality through internal accountability and deliver industry leading products. Such a visionary might be the right person to lead and inspire – something that is far more important than determining which gadgets you make and which apps to offer.

Contrarians argue that he has absolutely no experience or knowledge of consumer and enterprise software and hardware. “He’s a transportation engineer for goodness sake,” says one tech observer. Microsoft, it is argued, needs someone who at least has a clue about the things they make.

Mulally has said that he has no intentions of leaving Ford Motor Company –just yet. But knowing the 2011 Chief Executive of the Year, it’s a safe bet that he would be no caretaker. To dismissing him as a mere “transportation engineer” wholly undervalues Mulally’s value. While at Boeing, he had direct links with Ford and helped the company’s Taurus team with its design and development of its new car. Similarly, while running Boeing’s commercial aviation business in Seattle, Mulally knew Gates and Ballmer and shared ideas with them.

This doesn’t raise his geek credentials with tech’s high priests, but he is no neophyte either. Microsoft has many more parallels with Ford than insiders may be aware of. Both have a high-touch brand, and a tradition of innovation that needs burnishing. When he arrived at Ford in 2009, some Dearborn insiders had doubts about him because he wasn’t “a car guy.” Such doubt comes with the territory.

In the end, Satya Nadellato might be the obvious choice because Microsoft’s principal money making business is its Enterprise unit. The company will need to streamline and improve Windows 8 smartphones and tablets in order to forge ahead in the marketplace. In addition, it will have to reduce the selling price of it’s tablets down so it can become a major player in the mobile tablet world. Directors will be deciding shortly because the goal is to name a CEO before the end of the year.

Whatever they choose it almost certainly shouldn’t be a caretaker.




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