Guest Commentary: A flurry of speculation that Seattle’s Alan Mulally, Ford’s turnaround CEO, might be chosen to become Microsoft’s next CEO has digital pundits rushing to throw cold water on the idea. Forbes, for one, says “Microsoft needs a younger, more dynamic CEO with more of an entrepreneurial tech startup mentality.”
Actually, Mulally is exactly what Microsoft needs.
The Redmond mothership is a giant, mature enterprise that has grown dense with thickets over the decades and has suffered from a lack of strategic clarity. Tech startup rah-rah “dynamism” won’t nearly be enough to help Microsoft find a compelling post-PC era path. Microsoft’s R&D investments already generate brilliant ideas by the truckload. The vital trick will be to get disparate teams to work together to turn a well-curated subset of those ideas into surpassing products in a continually changing business environment.
Coaxing that out of 99,139 employees will require mature talent to cast a fresh eye and craft a compelling core vision and then empower leaders within and agile development teams, while simultaneously euthanizing dozens of blooming bad ideas. Key to all of that? Significantly improving the user experience across all products. Best for Microsoft to have someone who has fought giant life-or-death battles before — and triumphed.
Mulally did those things at Ford, and before that at Boeing, where he ran the 777 project. The 777 was one of the few jetliner projects to earn great marks for pioneering new technologies — the first Boeing jet built without traditional blueprints, designed instead entirely on CAD/CAM systems invented for the purpose — while bringing customers face-to-face with internal teams as a way to speed production and deliver a flagship aircraft built from millions of parts and lines of code. (Mulally actually invited United Airlines, the 777 launch customer, not only to advise through the development process but actually to be part of Boeing’s 777 development team.) And the 777 continues to earn raves.
Mulally has considerable strategic chops too. He has a habit of doing very deep dives into the arcana of a company and then backing way up to the big picture, sussing out the competitive landscape, and articulating long view goals that translate into pragmatic daily guidance at every level. Another essential: He kills things that don’t work. At Ford, particularly, Mulally carved away whole divisions of formerly sacred cows that had gone adrift or detracted from the core.
He did all of this while also captivating and inspiring the Ford (union) workforce and to a significant degree, its shareholders and customers. He championed a “One Ford” program that melded historic fiefdoms into a globally synchronized entity, accruing efficiency after efficiency.
At Microsoft, that tactic was imitated — but not duplicated — by outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer. His recent sprawling, 2,700-word re-org memo heralded “One Microsoft”, but the hollow buzz-speakiness of it all left eyes glazing over. And his grand concept, that Microsoft will become a “devices and services” company, budged barely a needle in the enthusiasm department.
On Microsoft’s most recent analyst conference call things were reportedly upbeat, but looking at the data and seeing how Microsoft trails Apple in 5-year profit, 1-year profit, capital expenditures and market capitalization (though Microsoft still generates mountains of cash), not to mention its decade-long stalled stock price, shareholders may wonder how mighty Microsoft could have Apple nipping so fiercely at its heels.
There are objections to the notion of Mulally leading Microsoft: He hasn’t led a software company before. He’s too old. Another thread posits that Mulally would need to be an interim CEO because of all that. But it’s hard to imagine he’d take the job with an “interim” attached to it, and it also isn’t necessary to call it that. A few solid years leading the company and then carefully planning his own exit — just as he’s done at Ford — would be transformative.
Matt Fikse-Verkerk is a contributing writer for Crosscut, covering urban affairs, politics, tech, and business. He consults to businesses and public service entities on strategy and communications and has worked as an entrepreneur, CEO and past Special Projects Director for the Mayor of Seattle. His work has appeared on KUOW 94.9 FM, KCPQ Television, SLOG/The Stranger, and elsewhere. On twitter: @mattfikse