In the week since Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced his (early) retirement, many opinions have surfaced about who his successor should be. Options include the return of founder and chairman Bill Gates, a la Steve Jobs’ return to Apple.
However, the question is not really of who, but what traits are needed for the next CEO to return Microsoft to its glory years.
If you read my article "Why More Marketers Are Taking The CEO Reins," which appeared on CMO.com last week, then you’ll know where I’m heading.
During Ballmer’s 13-year tenure, Microsoft failed to follow consumer trends for smart devices and Internet. It struggled to reinvent itself from a desktop PC-driven company in the fast-changing, consumer-friendly world dominated by mobile devices and social media. As a result, Microsoft yielded the spotlight (and its stock value) to companies including Apple, Google, and Facebook.
On the positive side, Microsoft still produces some of the biggest money-making products in the technology industry. Last quarter, Microsoft’s profit was nearly $5 billion--although one can argue that to protect its cash-making products, Microsoft became too defensive in an industry that requires aggressive innovation to stay ahead.
The good news is the company’s financials are still on a solid foundation; the bad news is it needs to catch up--and catch up quickly in an industry where it matters most for its long-term sustainability.
To revitalize Microsoft, the next CEO needs to possess the key traits of a marketer. As witnessed by the recent trend in CEO appointments of former CMOs, boards are realizing the need to win over the consumers. At the same time, consumers are more educated with access to the wealth of information via the Internet. From end-user reviews to nonbiased ratings, brands that tap into the consumer’s experience--taking into account their active and busy lives--are winning.
The Benefits Of A CMO As CEO
Shortly after Apple’s iPhone introduction, Ballmer predicted at a forum in Seattle in 2007 there was “no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” Well, we know what happened. While Ballmer had his moments, Microsoft's next CEO needs to be consumer-centric. He or she will need to change the mindset of the organization from technology-focused to consumer-focused. Microsoft has focused on developing products and services primarily for the technician in the backroom rather than for the modern-day’s savvy consumer.
Make no mistake: Technological innovations are still critical, but not in the absence of understanding how they fit in and help enhance the consumer's daily life. This is where the CMO role of championing consumers and their future needs will be an invaluable trait to lead Microsoft out of its quagmire. A better understanding of consumer trends will provide the necessary clarity of Microsoft’s future path.
Microsoft's new CEO must champion:
1. Communication: Just as Ballmer was “stuck in the past,” so is the Microsoft brand. The next CEO needs to develop a vision that is relevant to the consumer and be able communicate that story in a compelling way to all the constituents. Most marketing executives are uniquely talented in communicating the message in a way that is as engaging as it is persuasive. CMOs have developed the compelling skill to tell a story, reaching and resonating with various stakeholders, including employees, board members, financial community, and--don’t forget--consumers.
2. Innovation: While the CEO may not be the one who innovates, he or she needs to embrace innovation and be willing to explore uncharted territories. Microsoft has lagged behind in innovation during Ballmer’s tenure; he did not emphasize nurturing of innovations, especially in the mobile segment.
The next CEO must seek and embrace new innovation, not only in technology, but also in building innovative business models as the mobile and social media world will continue to develop and mature. Technological innovations have shifted from desktop to mobile devices in our daily lives. This ability to identify and develop businesses innovations that deliver on unmet consumer needs are the skills marketers have developed throughout their careers.
3. Collaboration: The opportunity for the next CEO will be to tap into the enormous resources of Microsoft by building bridges across different businesses. Doing so will leverage the enormously talented organization to drive innovation, development, and adaption that will benefit consumers. This includes the next phase of Windows and Office for delivery over the Internet onto all types of devices, such as smartphones and tablets.
In the end, Microsoft’s next CEO must focus his or her onboarding period on establishing credibility and alignment with the other leaders in the organization and stakeholders–much sooner than later, as in before day one. It is imperative for the new leader to deliver better results faster.
As Microsoft seeks its next CEO, the ability to understand consumer trends, drive innovation in all aspects of the business, and communicate the Microsoft brand story should make CMOs among the strongest candidates for the job. Whether those traits make for better CEOs will depend on CMOs-turned-CEOs’ ultimate success in translating their abilities into results at the most senior level.