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Steve Ballmer's Exit Interview

When Microsoft issued the stunning news that longtime CEO Steve Ballmer would retire, some observers questioned whether he jumped or was pushed. For the first time Ballmer answered the question with graphic detail in an apparent effort to etch his legacy in stone.

In his uncharacteristically self-effacing interview with The Wall Street Journal late last week, Ballmer maintained the decision to leave was his, which he made while in London back in May. Well aware Microsoft needed to change faster or risk becoming marginalized by Apple, Google and others, Ballmer recalled reaching an inflexion point that Microsoft would be able to change faster without him.

"At the end of the day, we need to break a pattern," Ballmer told The Journal. "Face it: I'm a pattern."

Later that month Ballmer set the wheels in motion to inform the board. Also weighing in was lead director John Thompson, the onetime CEO of Symantec, who had made clear to Ballmer in January Microsoft needed to embrace change at a much more accelerated pace.

Ballmer recounted how he met with his close friend Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford who is a candidate to succeed Ballmer, though the automaker has stated its chief will stay put through 2014. During that Christmas Eve meeting at a Starbucks near Seattle, the two talked for hours about Microsoft's new "devices and services strategy" and how Mulally turned around Ford by implementing a more team-oriented approach. Looking for a way to overhaul Microsoft, Ballmer saw that the  team-oriented model would help to eliminate the legendary siloes that have held the company back. Ballmer then changed his management style to fit with this new idea.

It is well-known Ballmer didn't want to retire until his youngest son graduates in 2017. At the time of his retirement announcement, Ballmer said bringing in a new CEO in the midst of a transition might not be in Microsoft's best interests.

The report is a fascinating story of how Ballmer fell on his sword for the good of the company he loves so much. That may very well be how things played out. On the other hand, a skeptic could argue if the board (with or without support from founder and chairman Bill Gates) did force Ballmer's hand -- wanted to spare one of its largest champions and shareholders humiliation -- it's not beyond the realm of imagination that they agreed to give him this graceful and humble exit.

But regardless how you feel about how Ballmer ran Microsoft over the years, the company has grown in revenue and profits consistently throughout his tenure even if its share price did little to increase. An orderly transition is critical and throwing Ballmer under the bus certainly wouldn't further that cause.

The story Ballmer revealed is quite plausible even if he displayed unusual humility. Unless evidence surfaces to the contrary though, I'll take Ballmer at his word. Do you?


Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 11/18/2013 at 10:53 AM


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