Potential successors to Steve Ballmer at Microsoft

With Ballmer planning to ride off into the sunset, the question now is who could replace him.

After years of enduring demands of "off with his head" from stock analysts and cranky shareholders alike, Steve Ballmer gave in and announced his intention to retire in the next 12 months. Whether he did this voluntarily or involuntarily makes no matter to me, and I will leave that speculation to Marco.

Our exercise here is to find out who could possibly replace him. Before any smart alecks chime in with "a hundred monkeys with typewriters," don't forget this is a $70 billion company that employs more than 100,000 people worldwide. CEOs fit to run such firms don't grow on trees. If they did, HP wouldn't be in so much trouble.

My list is made up of outsiders for two reasons. For one, the best candidates have been driven out of Microsoft in recent years (most notably Bob Muglia and Paul Maritz), and what remains don't have much for bragging rights. Secondly, Microsoft desperately needs an outsider to come in and coldly shake things up like Lou Gerstner did to IBM. I feel a Microsoft veteran won't make the hard decisions that an outsider with no emotional connection to the company would make.

But first, let's deal with a few internal names that have come up:

  • Kevin Turner, COO - For a while, he seemed like the man to beat. But in a recent reorg, a lot of power was taken from him. That’s not a sign of confidence. 
  • Julie Larson-Green, Devices and Studios Engineering Group - After her stellar run as head of the Windows division, she got downgraded to the group that gave us the Zune and Kin. That's quite the vote of confidence.
  • Tami Reller, EVP of marketing - The fact that she moved out of Windows so fast is also telling.

So, onto the candidates who seem to make sense on some level or another, or names that will likely come up:

  • Renee James, Intel - I know, she's their newly minted president, but that still makes her number two. Here is a chance to be number one, an opportunity that will not happen at Intel short of something tragic happening to CEO Brian Krzanich. She is the top software executive at Intel and once headed a group called Intel Online Services, an early attempt at what Azure offers now. She'd be ideal to patch the rift between the two firms, and don’t discount her gender. The computer industry is quite politically correct, and with women leading IBM and HP, Microsoft might decide it's time to put a woman at the helm.
  • Paul Maritz, ex-VMware, ex-Microsoft - Maritz is probably the best suited ex-Microsoftie to pull off a Steve Jobs, leaving the company only to make a triumphant return and save the day. His tenure at VMware gave him an education in virtualization and cloud computing and put him on a first-name basis with all of the major hardware OEMs. He and James are my two favorite choices.
  • Steven Mills, IBM - If he were 10 years younger, there's little doubt Mills would have gotten the CEO position at IBM. The company has no better spokesman. He's been the face of the company for years now, especially with the press-shy Sam Palmisano running the company. He's a software guy who understands the big picture of the cloud, Big Data and a holistic view of software product lines. The question is whether a 40-year IBM veteran would leave for anything, even the top job at a giant like Microsoft.
  • Marc Benioff, Salesforce – This would need an extra step - Microsoft would have to acquire Salesforce.com. From there, Marc could begin the process of integrating Microsoft online offerings, which are better than he would probably admit, with Salesforce, Office 365, Dynamics and Azure, along with the Visual Studio tools and Windows Server line, would complement Salesforce.com nicely. One issue - given all the nasty things Marc has said about Microsoft over the years, would the 'Softies actually go along with him as their new leader?
  • Steven Sinofsky, former Microsoft - He was the guy people felt would take over. But after his abrupt departure in November of last year, an ugly side emerged - one of a man who did not play well with others, was often abrasive and sometimes abusive. That might be a strike against him. Two more strikes against him? Windows 8 was his bright idea. That alone should get him banished to the hinterlands.

Just to be silly:

  • Scott Forstall, ex-Apple - This would be the best revenge for him, but that's not a reason to make someone a CEO. He seemed poised to take over for Tim Cook. He was often the most charismatic and entertaining speaker at Apple events, and he was in charge of Apple's biggest group. But apparently he made a lot of enemies at Apple, and that’s not what you want in a CEO.
  • Bill Gates - No. Not going to happen. Don't even ask it.
  • Willie Robertson, Duck Commander - You never know, but he must make Uncle Si his company spokesman.
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