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Summary:

Steven Sinofsky’s ability to deliver big-money products with minimal delay put him on the short list to be Microsoft’s next CEO. But, he did not work well with others and that will be a key requirement for whoever steps in for Steve Ballmer.

Satya Nadella - President, Server and Tools Business, Microsoft - Structure 2011

It’s only natural that after Steven Sinofsky’s rather abrupt exit from Microsoft on Monday night, handicapping began anew as to who will replace Steve Ballmer as CEO.

Ballmer has said that he intends to stay put till 2017, something that may have contributed to stress between him and the ambitious Sinofsky. Of course the board may have other ideas, but so far — other than not awarding full bonuses for the CEO last year — Microsoft’s board seems to support Ballmer.

Sinofsky, despite his control freaky nature, was considered a frontrunner, and at least one insider — the widely read anonymous blogger MiniMicrosoft – thinks Sinofsky’s departure may actually help his odds of achieving the top spot. He wrote:

“… I don’t believe his departure rules him out at all for Microsoft CEO. In fact, I think if he stays in tech and becomes CEO of another company it makes him an even more obvious choice to come back to Microsoft as its leader.”

Microsoft International president Jean-Philippe Courtois

Anything’s possible but personally, I’ve felt for some time that Satya Nadella, president of the company’s Server & Tools group, is — or should be — on the shortest list of possible CEOs. He has technical chops and — get this — he has people skills.

One insider agrees on that pick but also said COO Kevin Turner has to be considered.  The Wal-Mart veteran who joined Microsoft a few years ago “delivers the numbers and numbers are important,”  he said. Turner’s retail experience might come in handy as Microsoft continues to roll out its own stores and offer Microsoft-branded hardware. Panos Panay, Microsoft’s hardware guy who wowed the crowds at the recent Surface announcement is also an up-and-comer.

Another dark horse is  Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International.

Ballmer — and whomever is his successor — will have to foster much better cooperation across the famously fractious groups at Microsoft. A decade ago when I dealt with the company daily, the best way to suss out negative stories about Windows was to call someone on the Office team. And vice versa. Sinofsky was famous for driving his own groups hard, and delivering product on time or close to it. He was not at all good with dealing with dependencies between his group and others.

“He was awful working on things when he didn’t have control,” said one insider. Bob Muglia, the former server and tools chief, and Sinofsky, who led Office at the time, couldn’t abide each other, several sources said.

Normally, I don’t pay too much attention to verbiage in press statements about executive departures, but in this case the wording is telling. (CNET has the text of Ballmer’s memo to employees here.) In the release Ballmer says:

“We’ve built an incredible foundation with new releases of Microsoft Office, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Microsoft Surface, Windows Server 2012 and ‘Halo 4,’ and great integration of services such as Bing, Skype and Xbox across all our products. To continue this success it is imperative that we continue to drive alignment across all Microsoft teams, and have more integrated and rapid development cycles for our offerings.”

Driving that sort of alignment was not in Sinofsky’s wheelhouse. But it will have to be a strength of Microsoft’s next CEO, whoever that may be.

Check out the video below of Derrick Harris’s Structure interview of Satya Nadella.

Watch live streaming video from gigaomstructure at livestream.com
  1. It’s unbelievable that Ballmer has remained in the top job for this long.

    It was obvious at least 4 years ago that Ballmer had no idea which way the industry was headed. He scoffed and laughed at the original iPhone.

    We saw Windows Mobile sales drifting downwards, and finally crashing when Ballmer announced its successor, Windows Phone 7. But WP7 sales slumped. Ballmer should have been shown the exit then. Now, the failures just keep rolling out, one after the other. Ballmer now says Surface tablet sales are only “modest”.

    Ballmer is a competent manager, but he’s not of the caliber to be CEO of a company like Microsoft. It’s a job that requires vision, beyond just managing. It requires someone who can look ahead and predict the future in technology. It requires someone who can look at different technologies and bring them together in a new product.

    The longer Microsoft’s board leaves Ballmer at the helm, the more trouble Microsoft will get into. Ballmer is old school Microsoft. Tough guy. Hates Linux and open source, which he once called “a cancer”.

    If Ballmer had embraced open-source, he could have brought a smartphone and tablet to market much quicker than what happened. All his competitors use open-source software at the core of their smartphones and web browsers. And those competitors have been proven to be much nimbler than Microsoft.

    Microsoft needs a radical turn-around. Ballmer is the worst person in the job, and cannot do it.

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    1. so should the next ceo be a total outsider? Any candidates leap to mind?

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