Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's Next CEO: Who's on the Short List?

Following the surprising immediate departure of Windows President Steven Sinofsky late last year, many are asking who will be CEO Steve Ballmer's successor.

The talk persists despite the fact that Ballmer told The Wall Street Journal late last year he had no intentions of vacating the CEO chair any time soon; he said he plans to stick around until the board thinks he can't handle the job.

I've seen some individuals say Sinofsky left Microsoft because he realized he couldn't take over Ballmer's CEO seat. I'm not convinced (nor are a number of the Microsoft-savvy folks with whom I chat) that Sinofsky taking over as CEO was his -- or the Microsoft board's -- immediate or long-term plan.

Those caveats aside, guessing games around Microsoft CEO succession plans aren't new. Not so long after Bill Gates relinquished his CEO title at Microsoft to Steve Ballmer in 2000, there was lots of speculation about which of the so-called "Baby Bills" would rise to prominence. That list, dating back to 2003, included a number of Microsoft execs who are still with the company (and an equal number who are now gone from Redmond). Those still with Microsoft include Chris Jones, Windows Services; Yusuf Mehdi, gaming; Tami Reller, Windows; and Eric Rudder, technical strategy.

A lot has happened at Microsoft since 2003. Now, 10 years later, who's potentially positioned to lead the new, devices- and services-centric Microsoft? Here are a few of the names I've heard bandied about.

The Not-So-Dark Horse
COO Kevin Turner: Turner was at one point seen as a Ballmer-backed shoo-in for the next Microsoft CEO. If you look at the latest Redmond pay and bonus cheat sheet, the highest-paid exec at the company is Turner. He's not too popular with Microsoft employees, but bean counters seldom are.

Still on the Short List
Windows Chief Financial Officer and Chief Marketing Officer Tami Reller: Reller joined Microsoft back in 2001, when Microsoft bought Great Plains Software, where she had worked since 1984. She moved to the Windows team in 2007. She's the lead of business and marketing strategy for Windows devices, including Surface and OEM devices, in addition to her existing marketing and finance work.

Representing the New Guard
Tony Bates: Bates joined Microsoft as part of the Skype acquisition, and is now president of the Skype Division. Before working at Skype, Bates was a GM of the Cisco Enterprise, Commercial and Small Business group. The Microsoft CEO needs to be a Jack of all enterprise and consumer trades, these days.

The Geek Guy
Satya Nadella: Nadella has worked across quite a variety of business units at the company. He's currently the president of the Server and Tools Business. Before that, he was senior VP of R&D for the Online Services Division (Bing, MSN and advertising). And before that, he led the Microsoft Business Solutions unit (Dynamics ERP and Dynamics CRM). He definitely has cross-unit knowledge.

The Trojan Horse (Take Two)
Stephen Elop: When Elop moved from president of the Microsoft Business Division in 2010 to join Nokia as CEO, some joked he might be a Trojan horse. The speculation -- some idle, some serious -- was that Elop went to Nokia at Ballmer's and the board's behest to turn Nokia into Microsoft's new Windows Phone headquarters. That talk died down as rumors grew of Microsoft possibly making its own Surface Phone.

Leading Outside Man
Reed Hastings: Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, joined the Microsoft board back in 2007. Until October 2012, when he abruptly resigned from the board with little explanation as to why, some believed he might be one of the few "outsiders" who could make a realistic, lasting play for the next CEO spot.

I've heard a couple Microsoft watchers speculate Sinofsky could make a comeback as CEO one day, similar to the way that Steve Jobs left Apple and then managed a triumphant return. I'm not so sure about that. Who do you think might be Ballmer's heir apparent now?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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Reader Comments:

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 Mike Redmond, WA

Satya Nadella? You got kidding me. He does not have integrity at all. Only knows how to promote fellows from his home country.

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 Smartestone

Get rid of Ballmer, Kevin Turner and the dead weight in Sr.. Management. Stop hiring all of Oracle's rejects otherwise it will turn into an Oracle shop...enough said. Also get rid of the crappy software sales account managers and bring in more strategic sales staff who know ho to truly develop an account plan.

Mon, Jan 14, 2013 Seattle WA

Doesn't matter who is CEO. It's HR is horrendous. Employees don't enjoy working there. It's stock has flat-lined for a decade. Can Microsoft save itself from the inside? Probably better to have someone from the outside who can take a fresh look at things.

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 Jay Wisconsin

Hastings? No way! One word. "Quickster". Sigh.

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 Bob Seattle

MS is already a turnaround assignment for any new CEO. The company has failed to benefit substantially from any of the numerous technology waves which have emerged over the past decade and now is poorly positioned for the future and being disrupted in its core businesses. Elop is the only person on that list with any record as a turnaround guy, and even that has taken a bit of a hit given Nokia's performance so far (though I think he's done an okay job in a very bad situation). I'm not sure he's got the vision though. And of course a few more years of Ballmer may make even a turnaround impossible, in which case all they need is someone to maximize profits by cutting costs while managing it to its natural death. Turner could handle that. But I don't MS's board even admitting the company is done, even though it's increasingly obvious that on its present trajectory it is.

Thu, Jan 10, 2013

Scott Guthrie - he has already reshaped the face and image of Microsoft.

Thu, Jan 10, 2013

Philippe Kahn

Thu, Jan 10, 2013 ITMAGE

I agree Scott G. would probably be an excellent choice, although another option might be Mark R. I would certainly like to see Microsoft be run by a true hard core software guy.Of course if Bill G comes back I'd be ecstatic.

Thu, Jan 10, 2013

Philippe Kahn

Thu, Jan 10, 2013 andrewm Philadelphia

Although I'd love to see ScottGu or Soma in charge, it'll never happen. They're way too good at what they do, and I'm guessing neither cares as much about shareholders as they do devs and UX. That's a deal breaker for any board.

Thu, Jan 10, 2013 Chaiwa! Lusaka

I don't understand why some people keep insulting MS!! if asked to show what difference they have made in the world, they would just shrink with lots of shame!! shame on you haters. Microsoft products are being used and appreciated as far as my home village(in Kalyongo), a very remote place where Gates will never be, physically. That is great success!! Whoever takes over as MS CEO, i just wish MS God's leading hand and continued success....

Wed, Jan 9, 2013

My vote goes to the 'GU' !

Wed, Jan 9, 2013 Rodrigo Silveira United States

I saw a picture of Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal today. He looks bored, perhaps dejected. Saving Microsoft is a lot easier than saving the world.

Wed, Jan 9, 2013

what about Bill Gates. After Ballmer finishes destroying the company Bill can come back and save it. Just like Steve Jobs did with Apple.

Wed, Jan 9, 2013 Pelumi Bodunwa Nigeria

I have great trust in 'The GU'. The guy's a tech visionary and that's combined with unusual cool-headedness. He turned around ASP.NET and he's doing same with Azure.

Wed, Jan 9, 2013 Miguel Brazil

How about Linus Torvalds?

Wed, Jan 9, 2013 Vincent

Agree with XPCLIENT: leader must be not only fat and loud, but a bit techie to recognize tendencies in an IT. It's stupid, for example, to rely on mobile market - it's not a replacement for desktop, but ADDITION to the PC. To know it you have to be very tech guy with calm mind. Like me :)) Anyway, MS already suxx and have to grow again from the 5 years deep hole.

Wed, Jan 9, 2013 JimL

If you want to roll up the company like IBM or HP, then put an accounting person as the CEO. If you want to see new innovation, then place a strong marketing person as the CEO. Just simple lessons from my MBA program.

Wed, Jan 9, 2013

Who says that Ballmer is leaving any time soon?

Wed, Jan 9, 2013 Garry @ TriSys Cambridge

Scott Guthrie or Anders Hjelsberg - we need a techie in charge who really understands developers, developers, developers. No more bean counters or Marketing types - ask why MS is not cool amongst the IT world?

Tue, Jan 8, 2013 Anand india

I vote for Soma Somasegar. He is the best person for the job.

Tue, Jan 8, 2013 xpclient

Satya Nadella would be the most apt choice for a CEO. Microsoft needs geek leadership, not clueless cheerleaders.

Tue, Jan 8, 2013

There's only 1 that would really be able to get Microsoft back on track: Chris Capossela.

Tue, Jan 8, 2013 ike United States

I would remove Tami Reller Reller from the list. If something is wrong at MS has always been marketing, at the point that for many "microsoft" "windows" are just synonymous of [fill in the blank] in other words MS brands have no love from the most of consumers.

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