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Ballmer's last decisions at Microsoft prove to be his best

Departing CEO Steve Ballmer knew needed to change Microsoft, but couldn't change himself. So he fell on his own sword.

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Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

An amazing article in Monday's edition of the Wall Street Journal gives insight into what happened to precipitate Steve Ballmer's departure from Microsoft. As many have speculated, Ballmer is not leaving because he's ready. But what is interesting is the process that led to his departure.

The Journal's article is built on interviews with Ballmer and Microsoft board members, not a bunch of anonymous sources. The story begins in January 2013, with Ballmer on a conference call with the board, who were pushing him hard to make changes far faster than he had been prepared to make.

"Hey, dude, let's get on with it," lead director John Thompson says he told him. "We're in suspended animation."

(Seriously? These are adults talking to each other like that?)

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They were getting impatient with Microsoft's repeated missing the boat on things like smartphones and tablets, not to mention Windows 8 stinking up the market. Ballmer had a vision but it was taking too long. The directors didn't push Steve to step down "but we were pushing him damn hard to go faster," Thompson told the WSJ.

Thompson isn't a lightweight. He was a former IBM senior executive and was the long-running CEO of Symantec before retiring several years ago. He is now heading up the CEO search committee. So he's someone who could speak honestly and bluntly to Ballmer.

Ballmer said "I'll remake my whole playbook. I'll remake my whole brand."

But he couldn't. Ballmer eventually told the Thompson and the board "At the end of the day, we need to break a pattern. Face it: I'm a pattern." And that was what led his decision to retire earlier than he wanted to.

"Maybe I'm an emblem of an old era, and I have to move on," Ballmer told the Journal. "As much as I love everything about what I'm doing, the best way for Microsoft to enter a new era is a new leader who will accelerate change."

That is remarkable, especially when you contrast it to the buck passing going on in Washington over the epic fail of HealthCare.gov. There you have a case of no one taking responsibility and no one resigning or being fired. Yet Ballmer, the number two shareholder at Microsoft who would not be easy to remove, looks around at a profitable company, says I am the problem, and steps down. You have to respect that and wonder if there isn't another CEO or two who needs to make the same admission.

And in the process, he's taking the loathed stack ranking employee rating system with him. Microsoft announced its demise last week, and that memo was promptly leaked to the entire world.

I checked with my contact that provided so much valuable insight the last time we discussed stack ranking. This person said most people were taking a wait and see attitude, because they had been made so many promises before. HR head Lisa Brummel, whom my contact called "the most hated exec" in Microsoft, was described as looking "happy, very happy…if not relieved to change the subject."

Microsoft's board is meeting this week to whittle the list of candidates down to three to five, with outsiders leading the charge. The feeling is that an outsider is needed to shake things up. I couldn't agree more.

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