Microsoft's CEO short list falls short

Microsoft's handful of candidates to replace CEO Steve Ballmer is far from perfect. After all, Microsoft is a bit complicated and a tech conglomerate in many respects.

Larry Dignan
3 min read

Microsoft has reportedly narrowed its CEO short list to about five people and all of them are far from perfect. It's unclear how they'll navigate the company.

According to Reuters, Microsoft has the following candidates in mind to replace CEO Steve Ballmer. This list isn't much different from what Mary Jo Foley reported weeks ago. What this list shows -- if anything -- is that Microsoft isn't exactly thinking outside the box for leadership. Here's the short version:

Alan Mulally
Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally. Mulally is by far the most seasoned executive in the running. If Mulally took over at Microsoft he can say he ran three American icon companies: Boeing, Ford, and Microsoft. That's quite a feat. But Mulally has a few trouble spots. First, he's not from the software industry. On one hand, that reality means he brings in fresh eyes. The downside is there might be a long learning curve. Mulally does know culture and large companies fairly well.

Age could be another issue for Mulally, but that worry would be offset by experience for many. Mulally is a generation behind Chairman Bill Gates and Ballmer. He has reached the age in which the US federal government considers appropriate to receive retirement benefits and is three years past the mandatory retirement age of tech peer Intel.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that Mulally, a friend of Ballmer's, may be locked into a device strategy many analysts and investors question. Would Mulally break up Microsoft if it made sense?

Former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop. If Elop was named Microsoft CEO, it would likely be viewed as a major disappointment. Maybe Elop wouldn't deserve that reaction, but perception is reality. Elop didn't save Nokia by any stretch. Elop, an alum of the software giant, represents more of the same for Microsoft and wouldn't be considered much of a visionary.

Skype CEO Tony Bates. Bates would be an interesting choice. With his Skype experience, Bates at least represents a more futuristic view of Microsoft. One issue is that Microsoft is a massive company and resembles a conglomerate in many respects. Could Bates manage something as large and complicated as Microsoft? Perhaps. Bates was head of Cisco's enterprise unit before joining Skype. I'd rate Bates as the best consensus pick for the Microsoft CEO gig.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft's cloud and enterprise chief. Nadella would be an interesting pick because his unit represents the future of Microsoft. Like Bates, it's unclear whether Nadella could manage the sprawling software giant. Nadella could bring a new vision to Microsoft and may not be locked into a device strategy. And because Nadella sits in the enterprise unit, he would know how it feels to be Microsoft's cash cow and used to fund projects formed due to Google and Apple envy. Nadella could be persuaded that a breakup makes sense.

CSC CEO Mike Lawrie. Lawrie is a turnaround artist, but he doesn't fit the bill with Microsoft. Simply put, Microsoft isn't flawed enough for a turnaround person. Microsoft is far from a wreck, and a turnaround artist would probably be frustrated. The risk of blowing up the company to try something new is too great. After all, Microsoft rakes in a lot of dough.

In the end, Microsoft's short list is a bit flawed, but frankly it may not matter. If any new CEO is locked into Ballmer's device strategy and hamstrung by Gates when it comes to being a visionary, the chances for success from big bets is slim anyway.

This story originally appeared as "Microsoft's CEO short list: So flawed" on ZDNet.