Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s decision to step down, announced this morning, is remarkable in part because it confirms the company’s lack of succession planning — leaving a wide-open field as Bill Gates and the rest of the Microsoft board seek a replacement.
Let the speculation begin. Microsoft says it has retained executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles International to assist in the search, considering candidates both external and internal. A big part of the problem is that there is no clear successor inside the company, even after the massive internal reorganization that Ballmer announced this summer.
On the topic of possible outside candidates: What about Netflix CEO Reed Hastings? Or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg? Yes, those seem like long shots, but Hastings is notable in part because he was previously on the Microsoft board.
Potential inside candidates could include former Skype chief Tony Bates, operating systems boss Terry Myerson, marketing leader Tami Reller, chief operating officer Kevin Turner, cloud and enterprise vice president Satya Nadella, strategy and research leader Eric Rudder, and devices and studios VP Julie Larson-Green, the former Windows engineering leader.
But there’s actually another category of candidate to consider — the vast legions of former Microsoft executives who have left the company over the years, at least in part because it didn’t appear Ballmer was stepping down anytime soon. Drawing heavily from that field, here’s a quick list of potential candidates who could be on the radar as Microsoft seeks its next leader.
Paul Maritz: The longtime Microsoft executive worked at the company for 16 years, overseeing areas including the company’s platform and developer division, before launching his own company and going on to be the CEO of VMware Corp. A respected technology leader, Maritz had been frequently discussed as a potential successor long before Ballmer announced plans to step down.
Steven Sinofsky: The former Microsoft Office and Windows chief is a polarizing figure — with fans and critics inside the company — and over the years he has downplayed any ambitions to take over as chief executive. But it’s tough to deny his record of getting Windows back on its feet with Windows 7 after the franchise fell on hard times. If only Windows 8 and Surface were doing better right now.
Vic Gundotra: Now this would be bold. The former Microsoft general manager has taken on a much higher profile since joining Google, overseeing the search giant’s social networking push with the launch of Google+. Whether or not he would be up to the job of Microsoft CEO, he’s an example of someone who could come in and shake things up, at least.
Stephen Elop: The former Microsoft executive, now the CEO of Nokia, would be an interesting pick, particularly if the Microsoft board were to pull this off through a long-discussed acquisition of the smartphone maker.
Kevin Johnson: Microsoft’s former platforms chief also had his fans inside the company and he would be available, at least, having announced his own plan to retire as the CEO of Juniper Networks earlier this year.
Bill Gates: Sorry folks, I still don’t think this will happen. It would be epic, and I would love to be proven wrong, but … no.
Part of the problem here is that these are, for the most part, obvious candidates for the job. Status quo is not what Microsoft needs right now. Who else out there would you like to see on the short list?
Here’s our analysis of the Ballmer news, with some additional insights on who might be in the best position to fill Ballmer’s shoes.