Getting to know John Thompson, Microsoft's new chairman

Meet the former IBMer who is taking over the chairman role from Bill Gates after having only joined the board two years ago.

As part of the CEO transition at Microsoft, via which Satya Nadella is taking over as the company's third CEO effective immediately, one of Microsoft's current board members, John Thompson is simultaneously taking on the role of Microsoft board chairman.

Thompson is replacing Gates as board chairman. Gates is remaining on the Microsoft board. Ex-CEO Steve Ballmer is staying on the board as well, a spokesperson confirmed. But Gates' new title is "founder and technology advisor." Gates will be advising Nadella on product direction and has freed up "over a third" of his time to potentially meet with product groups at Microsoft for some undisclosed length of time. (Yes, I admit I am skeptical about the realities of the greater Gates involvement part of this equation.)

Microsoft's new chairman of the board, John Thompson. Microsoft

Thompson has been a member of Microsoft's board for two years. He has also been leading Microsoft's CEO search for the past five months-plus. (In a new video clip of Thompson (below), which Microsoft posted today, Thompson claims Nadella was the search committee's "first and unanimous choice" after reviewing all the CEO candidates.)

He is the CEO of Virtual Instruments, a company that manages virtual-physical cloud migrations and an investor in a handful of early-stage tech companies in Silicon Valley. Thompson also served as CEO of Symanec for 10 years, through 2009, and on Symantec's board until 2011. Before that, he held a variety of management positions at IBM in sales, marketing, software development for a variety of products including (somewhat ironically), OS/2.

Thompson recorded a Microsoft Channel 9 video last August, on the day that Microsoft announced its most recent reorg, designed to facilitate the company's shift to a devices and services company.

In that interview, Thompson said he joined the Microsoft board because he had "admired Microsoft for many, many, many years." He said he considered Microsoft to be "one of the true, iconic companies in our country."

Thompson also discussed in that video interview what Microsoft's board does, as well as what his job as "lead independent director" entailed. He said he previously helped Gates, Ballmer and "Brad" (Smith, Microsoft's lead counsel, I'm assuming) create the board meeting agenda and also acted as a conduit between other independent investors and Microsoft management.

Read more on ZDNet: Steve Ballmer, the exit interview

Microsoft typically holds five board meetings a year on-site, Thompson said. One of these is typically a strategy meeting, via which the board hears about planned strategies for each part of Microsoft's business. The other four meetings tend to be focused on specific operating unit issues, and leaders of those units typically speak to the board about their particular issues and "what the financial returns will be."

Thompson emphasized that the board does not devise Microsoft's strategy; it provides insight and input on behalf of the shareholders. The board's role is "more a monitoring responsibility," he stressed. The board is charged with evaluating whether strategies are correct and product teams are executing well; whether the right financial terms and plans are in place; and how Microsoft is thinking about "human capital" in order to sustain leadership.

Thompson also said during the Channel 9 interview that he was very excited about Microsoft's devices and services strategy, and that he was confident it would produce the kinds of returns shareholders have seen over the past decade.

Microsoft's next regularly-scheduled board meeting is believed to be slated for March. That's when ValueAct Holdings President Mason Morfit is expected to join Microsoft's board, bringing the total number of Microsoft board members to 11.

According to various reports, ValueAct is more interested in seeing Microsoft step up its focus on enterprise and cloud than it is in seeing the company expand into manufacturing first-party devices. So if you're Gates, Ballmer, and Thompson -- all self-professed believers in the need for Microsoft to be a player in both consumer and enterprise, and both devices and services, -- it's probably time to double down on making it more difficult and less attractive for the company to dump Xbox and Bing...

This story originally appeared as "Meet Microsoft's new board chairman John Thompson" on ZDNet.

About the author

    Mary Jo Foley has been a tech journalist for almost 30 years. She is editor of ZDNet's "All About Microsoft" blog. She authored "Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era" and co-hosts the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT Network.

     

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