The Incredible Headless Microsoft

Giant mega-companies generally have CEO succession plans.

Long before he stepped down from the top spot, for example, Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a strategy for Tim Cook (then COO) to take his place. In the not-too-distant past, IBM managed to execute a well-oiled executive changeover. Successful companies plan well in advance for leadership switches, with employees doing their collective best to ensure that the process goes without too many hitches.

That’s because the risk of a bungled transition is just too great. Without a strong leader at the helm, a company shifts into autopilot and begins to drift, even as competitors speed merrily ahead. On the inside, executives see an opening and begin to jockey hard for the top slot, or at least more political power in the new regime. Things get messy.

Microsoft seems on the verge of hitting that “messy” stage. Nearly six months after CEO Steve Ballmer announced his retirement, the company has failed to lock down a successor despite an intensive search.

“I have no other plans to do anything other than serve Ford,” Ford CEO Alan Mulally, long considered a top candidate for the post despite his lack of tech experience, recently told the Associated Press. “You don’t have to worry about me leaving.”

Other reported candidates include Microsoft executives Tony Bates and Satya Nadella, as well as former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, but nobody has emerged as a clear frontrunner. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, AllThingsD reported that Bates (former CEO of Skype) was “Silicon Valley’s choice” for the top slot, with an ideal mix of management skills and technical knowledge.

A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal suggested that Ballmer and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates are indirectly impeding the CEO search, with potential candidates concerned that the men (who sit on the company’s board, and aren’t exactly known as shirking wallflowers) will interfere with strategy decisions.

Whomever the company’s search committee finally decides on, the eventual CEO will face a Herculean task. As his last acts in office, Ballmer initiated a massive corporate restructuring and the acquisition of Nokia’s smartphone division—the person who takes his place will need to wrestle with both those projects, in addition to placing his own stamp on things.


Image: James Marvin Phelps/