With Sinofsky out at Microsoft, let the post-Ballmer handicapping begin

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.

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