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's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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