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Microsoft and the Pittsburgh Steelers

How going outside the organization keeps new ideas flowing.

Satya Nadella was named as the third CEO in Microsoft's history yesterday. That is pretty amazing when you think about it. Since its founding in 1975, only three CEOs. With Super Bowl Sunday this past week, Microsoft's third CEO announcement made me think about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since 1969, the Steelers have had only three head coaches. Both organizations have been successful, but there are some key differences that could bode for trouble for Microsoft.

By now you have heard all about Nadella's background. Born in India, spent more than half his life here in the US, worked at Microsoft for 22 years, trained at the knees of Ballmer and Gates. He is an institutional Microsoft-ie. Make no doubt about it, Microsoft did not go outside of the organization for fresh blood on this one. The question is will they get any fresh ideas as a result?

In contrast, the Steelers, in hiring head coaches, have gone outside of the organization each time to bring in fresh ideas along with fresh blood. Chuck Noll, hired in 1969, was a Paul Brown disciple who had no connection to the Steelers. Bill Cowher, who replaced Noll in 1992, was a Pittsburgh native but never played or coached for the Steelers. Again - fresh ideas, fresh blood. When Cowher retired after the 2006 season, the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin. Again, no connection to the Steelers, bringing in fresh ideas once again. Through all three coaches' tenures, the Steelers have thrived as one of the most successful franchises in the NFL (OK you get it, I am a Steelers fan).

This is very different than Microsoft. No one questions that Bill Gates was a giant in the tech industry and a visionary. But after a while it was time for a change. Instead of reinvigorating the franchise with new ideas, they went in and brought up Steve Ballmer, one of Bill's inside men who had been there since the beginning. At a time when Microsoft desperately needed to embrace a new path, Ballmer stayed tried and true to the path that he and his mentor had set.

Now Nadella takes over at a time when it is more crucial than ever that Microsoft re-establish itself as a visionary leader, instead of playing catch up. Is he willing to break with vision and the golden path of Ballmer and Gates? After spending 22 years taking orders from these two men, can he really be his own man? 

Let's be clear - no one rises to this level without some initiative on their part. I have no doubt of the intelligence or talent of Satya Nadella. I just wonder whether, after all this time at Microsoft, he is too institutionalized. When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You sometimes can't appreciate another view of things. An outsider's view. Is an outsider's view necessary? I think it is.

While Microsoft is not going out of business, it needs to be sharper, quicker on the draw. One example is the recent fiasco with Skydrive. I like Skydrive. As an Office 365 user, I like having my Skydrive available all the time. How did Microsoft brand this thing and not realize the name was already claimed? Having to change the name at this date to OneDrive just reeks of amateurism. Could you see Apple releasing a product name without having secured rights to the name? This kind of sloppy work from Microsoft needs to stop.

While Skydrive/Onedrive is a small matter in the bigger picture, even using a cloud-based drive was a "me too" gesture. Microsoft doesn't need a caretaker. It needs someone who is going to bring excitement, vitality and adventure back to Microsoft.

This is different than say, Apple, where clearly they wanted a caretaker to continue Steve Jobs's vision and ways. But the time is coming for Apple to make a change too. Finishing up Steve Jobs's work has a finite lifecycle. Frankly, Apple needs to move beyond iTunes and the gadgets it spawned. What is the next big thing there, too?

Once again, Apple and Microsoft are at a crossroads. They both need to lead into the next big thing. But what is that next big thing? In football, it is about drafting good players, hard work, Xs and Os. It has served the Steelers well. In technology it is more about vision, imagination and innovation. 

I would have liked to see Microsoft go outside and pick someone who would set a new course rather than continue the policies of his predecessors, which have resulted in the stock price of the company underperforming the S&P 500 over the last years.

But hey, maybe I'm wrong and Nadella will be his own man. Time will tell, I guess. What do you think? 

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