As the Microsoft CEO succession story drags on and on — much to the chagrin of folks in Redmond, Ford CEO Alan Mulally either A) remains the leading contender for the job, or B) is fading as Microsoft insiders Satya Nadella or Tony Bates gain ground.
But if you wonder what Mulally might bring to the table, you probably couldn’t do better than chat with Bryce Hoffman, author of American Icon, a book about Mulally’s tenure at Ford, So I did. Hoffman has covered the auto industry at Detroit News since 2005 and — bonus points — he also covered Microsoft in the late 90s and early 2000s while at the Contra Costa Times and other outlets.
Here are some reasons Hoffman thinks Mulally could be just the ticket for Microsoft
1. Mulally gets “big” and isn’t cowed by it: As CEO of Ford and former CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes division, two gigantic manufacturing companies, Mulally has experience with scale. Ford has trailing twelve month revenues of about $146.5 billion and market cap of $66.4 billion and about 65,000 employees (plus a few hundred thousand more in Ford dealerships.)
2. He has engineered major culture change: Pre-Mulally Ford competed as much with itself as with GM or Toyota, Hoffman said. Microsoft has the same rep. Product groups were (are?) often at odds with each other. Windows hated Office, Office hated Windows and Windows and Office hated Azure, and so on. That was the main reason for the “One Microsoft” reorg announced last summer. Someone who could blow up those barriers and get people working together would be huge.
An example of Ford’s version of that dysfunction. At one point, the head of Asia actually mandated that a new fuel-sipping car under development for that market be built so it could not be sold in the U.S. without prohibitively expensive changes. The reason? The head of Asia saw his counterpart in North America as a rival: “He didn’t want the North American guy to get his hands on this hot car,” Hoffman said. Division heads often worked in ways that was not only damaging to the rival division, but damaging to Ford as a whole.
Mulally was able to take get that gaggle of “sharp-elbowed” executives to work together, Hoffman said.
3. He is data driven: Mulally mandated that everyone collect and work from the same information. Before he came in, executives built spreadsheets to suit their own needs. But at Mulally-instituted business plan review meetings every Thursday, no one brings their own set of self-serving numbers.
“All of the businesses were reduced to measurable data that could be measured and presented in a series of slides — just numbers and color-coded charts. Before that, meetings were like a scene from an old western — everybody came in sort of reaching for their guns.”
There was something about a single set of charts that leached ego out of the room.
4. He understands compensation: Before Mulally, Ford execs were compensated based on the performance of their division — no wonder there was internecine bloodshed. If that guy won, you lose, was the thinking. After Mulally, bonuses were calculated at least in part on how well all the divisions, how the company in aggregate, does.
5. He knows he doesn’t know everything: He relies on the experts. When he joined Ford, Mulally was asked who he was going to fire. The answer was: No one. “He said he wouldn’t sack anyone because Ford had the talent to do what needed to be done. He saw his job as bringing that talent out,” Hoffman explained.
6. He’s a techie: Ok, Mulally’s not a programmer or a software engineer, but he was trained as an aeronautical engineer and that’s a techie realm if there ever is one. He brings an engineering focus to the problems at hand. which is something that folks at Microsoft should probably appreciate
7. He thinks big, multifaceted companies can work: In one anecdote from American Icon, Mulally while being recruited told then-CEO Bill Ford that he was not interested in coming over just to break Ford up. Mulally got assurances that this was not the case and in September 2006, was named president and CEO of the auto maker.
Many on Wall Street would love to see Microsoft broken up “to unlock shareholder value.” That’s not a plan that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer would support. Nor would Mulally.
Again, to sum up, the big thing is culture change. At Microsoft, as at Ford, there are lots of very smart people who could invent the “next big thing,” but the next big thing only brings short-term gains. A reinvigorated corporate culture that promotes innovation and rewards collaboration in pursuit of common goals could be a winner for years to come.
If the “One Microsoft” idea is to live on, Mulally, based on his past performance, would make a logical CEO choice.
For more on Mulally from Hoffman, check out the video below.
Note: This post was updated at 4:08 p.m. PST to reflect that Mulally was CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes Division, not of Boeing overall.