On an Interview with Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, from The Wall Street Journal

On Friday, November 15, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft®. The article was written by Monica Langley. I hope anyone taking the time to read this article will note Mr. Ballmer’s great historical success. “Revenue tripled during his tenure to almost $78 billion in the year ended this June, and profit grew 132% to nearly $22 billion.” These numbers are nothing to scoff at. Only a handful of CEOs can claim the same level of success.

So why has Mr. Ballmer magnetized so much negative attention? I think it has something to do with the intensity with which he has approached his job and mission. Ms. Langley notes: “‘Charge! Charge! Charge!’ he bellows, jumping up from an interview and lunging forward while pumping his fist forward like a battering ram. ‘I’m not going to wimp away from anything!'”. Reading this in 2013, Mr. Ballmer’s tenacity takes on a positive, admirable (even heroic) tone and texture.

But back in 1999, the last year of the short life of NetScape, a company which left a permanent mark on all aspects of the information publishing business, Mr. Ballmer’s tenacity, as reflected in the strategies and tactics Microsoft personnel implemented to disrupt NetScape, were portrayed by the media as extreme cruelty — truly the kind of exploits typical of “the Empire” in George Lucas’ Star Wars fantasy.

When the tenacity and intensity of the CEO is considered, along with the enormous growth of Microsoft, as a business, during his tenure, its method of producing internal leaders, otherwise known as its “employee ranking system” makes more sense. As I’ve written earlier in this blog, businesses capable of sustaining and nurturing positive internal discord, meaning healthy contention between lines of business, will likely be more successful than their peers.

I wrote several posts on the topic of matrix sales organizations, where outside and inside sales personnel reported independently of one another, as an example of how to “turbo charge” sales productivity. The “employee ranking system” at Microsoft looks to me to be a very similar structure.

But for a mature tech business, all this discord can amount to a heavy burden. Successful public relations for an enormous business like Microsoft® depends on positive imagery — not snapshots of some savage barbarian horde. Perhaps John Thompson, who sits on Microsoft’s Board is right, it’s time for Mr. Ballmer to move on.

In my opinion, Mr. Ballmer’s decision to depart from the CEO position at Microsoft, together with the changes already begun in its internal organizational structure and its method of measuring, and rewarding, employee performance, all speak to a transition in its brand. The next few months should be very interesting for anyone following Microsoft.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2013 All Rights Reserved

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