Steve Ballmer stepped into the role of CEO from the role of Microsoft enforcer. Under Gates, he was the guy who pounded on the nails that stuck up, who dealt with the tactical disasters and owned most of the large enterprise relationships. Bill Gates was the strategic visionary and Ballmer the tactician. This would be like Bill being the quarterback and Ballmer the middle linebacker in U.S. football. You typically wouldn't replace one with the other as both would fail in the other's role. In other words, Gates would have sucked at Ballmer's job as well.
You could see this shortly after Steve got the CEO job. Up until then he was generally seen as a happy guy who had a ready smile and seemed to be having fun. Most of the time he has been CEO he has seemed very unhappy, angry and easy to upset, which is typically the sign of a bad job match. Many want to be CEO, or quarterback, but it takes a unique skill set to do the job well, just as it took a unique skill set to do what Ballmer was doing, but the two don't seem to translate.
In addition, in a software company, folks don't follow business types well. Google has all but outlawed them and while Gates was respected as one of the family, Ballmer's very different background was not and that has led to a lot of apparent internal rebellion. It is assumed that Bob Muglia was fired because he attempted a coup against Steve Ballmer. Ray Ozzie also left with a post suggesting that he, too, may have been critical of Steve.
What I think is kind of sad is that when this happens, there is such a stigma associated with stepping down that the CEO can't go back to his or her prior job where they were doing well and reverse what in hindsight was a bad decision. You often see this same thing with sales managers who were promoted from top sales people and the result is the firm loses an incredible asset who likely was happier, not to mention wealthier, in the prior role.
I first ran into this when I was writing the post mortem on John Akers, the only IBM CEO who was fired. Akers, who went through the same executive grooming programs most of us enjoyed, was well trained for the job, yet was blindsided by IBM's near-failure in the late 1980s. This was because he was largely isolated from the information he needed to make good decisions. You see, what happens is CEOs like to hear flattering information and people learn that the way to earn good reviews is to provide it.
This tends to isolate CEOs behind a wall of folks who feed them information designed to keep them happy or drive decisions they want. If you look at the decisions on Steve Ballmer's watch from the creation of the Zune devices to Windows Vista's premature shipment, it appears that Steve was fed information that led to decisions that no rational person would have made and that suggests he is either stupid or being fed bad information. I know Steve. He is far from stupid, suggesting the latter is likely the case.
Microsoft, at the very least, should be doing post-mortem analysis on each bad decision simply to assure it won't be made again, yet the firm constantly brings out incomplete products and underfunds marketing, which suggests that either this research isn't being done or the results are being altered to cover up the real cause. The firm, and this is hardly unique to Microsoft, seems to focus like a laser on blame, which prevents risk-taking, and avoids causal analysis like the plague, which might prevent repeating the mistake. And if you think Microsoft is bad, Google appears to be worse in this regard. It is my experience that when smart people make dumb decisions, it is generally due to bad information and it isn't uncommon to see an underperforming CEO surrounded by it.
Steve Jobs' Disadvantage Advantage
Earlier, I mentioned that Steve Jobs seemingly started with a bigger problem than Steve Ballmer did, and yet has outperformed Steve Ballmer. Jobs had two advantages: He had been fired once and that made him more willing to do whatever it took to win and Apple needed dramatic changes in order to survive. Jobs was vastly more willing to cut dramatically to rebuild the company.
Microsoft isn't failing and that makes dramatic change much more difficult to accomplish. In addition, Steve Ballmer has never, to my knowledge, been fired and likely believes it won't ever happen. Jobs believed the same thing at one time and his realization that anyone can be fired coupled with him being a CEO for the better part of a decade with smaller, easier companies before taking over Apple, gave him a set of experiences that Ballmer lacked. Jobs knew he needed to rebuild Apple to fit his own skill set, which, by that time, included years of being a CEO. He also knew that he couldn't live with failure and that he had to succeed at any cost. Ballmer isn't on that same page, yet.
Wrapping Up: Ballmer Is Getting It?
If you step back and look at the changes Microsoft has undergone recently in terms of both getting people Steve trusts in key positions and in reorganizing the company, it does look like Steve is beginning to get what he needs to do. The initial Windows 8 demonstration is impressive, the Xbox Kinect has been a massive success and Windows Phone 7 was a massive improvement over earlier offerings.
However, if you read the coverage on this week's All-Things-Digital conference, it appears that Office 11 isn't on the same page as Windows 8, suggesting that even a decade later, Steve isn't able to get the entire company on the same page and, if that holds, Microsoft still won't be where it needs to be. It is possible that it is simply too early to show Office 11's new interface and I hope that is the case.
But the lessons to take away here are that CEOs need a lot of unique training, they have to get accurate intelligence to be successful and, like any other job, some folks just aren't cut out for, nor will they be happy with, a job as CEO.
For Steve, who I actually consider to be an old friend I don't see anymore, my hope is he finds a way to either enjoy the job or leave it. I'm sorry to say I've largely been ineffective in getting him to see problems before they become pronounced and that failure will haunt me for the rest of my life if he fails. My hope for both of us is that he doesn't, and I hope that he becomes happier than he currently is. Life is too short for anyone to be as angry as he appears to be much of the time. The guy had a great sense of humor. I hope for both our sakes he finds it again.