Ballmer successor must clearly define Microsoft

Technology communications leaders say Microsoft's next CEO must clearly define the company's vision for both internal and external audiences, meaning communications will be key.

REDMOND, WA: Steve Ballmer's successor as Microsoft CEO will have to clearly define the company's vision both internally and externally, meaning communications will have a crucial role to play, say industry experts.

Last week, Microsoft said Ballmer will step down from the leadership role he has held for 13 years in the next 12 months. Pundits have been quick to suggest turnaround strategies and to speculate on who will be the company's next chief executive.

The news has resonance for the PR industry. Last week, Microsoft said it will reorganize so that communications leaders report to corporate VP of corporate communications Frank Shaw instead of their respective unit's marketing leader, as they had in the past.

“Communications [at Microsoft] needs to come from the top down,” says Todd Cadley, SVP at Horn Group.

He adds that “the new CEO needs to be extremely vocal and not perceived as too corporate,” noting that Microsoft's corporate image, along with the perception that it is mired in bureaucracy have hurt the company.

Cadley says the new Microsoft CEO needs to “breathe new life” into the organization, “bringing a lot of energy.”

“It is super-important that they recognize change happens from the inside out,” he says.

John Bell, MD at Social@Ogilvy, agrees that communications is vital to defining the organization's future.

“The role of communications at Microsoft is not just putting a seat next to senior leadership, but a collection of business leaders to create a platform to talk about what is next and then convening others outside of the company to talk about the future,” he says.

Bell suggests not only convening the media, but also other leaders at the startup level. Ballmer's successor should be thinking about “future-casting,” which is “defining or building a picture of what the future looks like in terms of the technology in our lives,” he says.

In terms of company culture, the new CEO should consider more collaborative social business practices, to democratize idea-sharing and best practices, he adds.

One criticism of Ballmer's tenure is that the company has not been visionary or innovative enough. Gary Grates, principal at W2O Group, contends that for the past decade, Microsoft has lived off its software while other companies have remade themselves and seen the future.

“The culture must show vision and vision must be supported by structure,” he says. “People want to win, and the new culture needs to show Microsoft how to win again.”

Leslie Campisi, MD for Hotwire PR in the US, adds that communications must also remain a priority for Ballmer as he prepares to depart the company.

“It's imperative that Ballmer spends his remaining days identifying and cultivating brand champions inside Microsoft who can provide a steady, unified voice for internal communications during this period,” she says.

Grates adds that the next Microsoft CEO could take a lesson from former IBM chief executive Louis Gerstner, who was credited with turning around that company at a time when it was being marginalized.

“Gerstner saw the IBM of tomorrow, not the IBM of yesterday. The new leader has to define what the next Microsoft is. It has to be about rethinking the future,” he says. “If [the new CEO] doesn't have clarity within the first six months [of his or her tenure], there will be problems.”

Just last month, Microsoft announced a global restructuring to create “One Microsoft,” with the goal of helping it organize around innovation. Hadley Wilkins, director of Hill+Knowlton Strategies' US technology practice, points out that as the company undergoes one of its “largest corporate transformations in history,” the “heart and soul of the company” is at stake.

“The new CEO needs to rebuild Microsoft on a corporate reputational basis. Whatever area they chose to focus on, they will need to change behavior internally to align behind it,” she says.

However, Wilkins adds that in terms of internal communications, “the new CEO will have to balance keeping morale high with recognizing that Microsoft is unlikely to regain its former primacy in a mobile-centric industry, where its traditional advantages of its installed base and ecosystem heft don't apply.”

Despite the challenges ahead for Ballmer's successor, Shift Communications CEO Todd Defren notes that “America loves a comeback story.” He contends that Marissa Mayer's tenure as CEO at Yahoo shows that companies under new management can “reap the benefits of reconsideration.”

“Apple, Google, and Facebook are now so dominant that Microsoft feels like an underdog that might be worth rooting for,” he says. “If the new CEO can own up to, and rectify, past missteps and make early strides to innovate both technologically and in terms of customer service, Microsoft has a fresh opportunity to regain relevance. A heavy lift, to be sure, but it's possible.”

Microsoft declined to comment for this article, but the company forwarded a post written by Shaw for its TechNet blog about media coverage since Ballmer's resignation was announced.

“There have been a few common themes in some of the coverage I've seen since Friday that are worth taking a moment to dissect and discuss. One approach has been to focus exclusive on some of our consumer businesses, and then judge us harshly while ignoring the successes we've had elsewhere,” he said on the blog.

Shaw added that “another approach has been to go a step further, criticize our lack of ‘focus,' and suggest that those other successes are actually a distraction from what they believe should be our single priority. What these themes reveal is a single narrow frame through which the writers and pundits view the industry itself that leads them to reach these conclusions.”

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