Does Bill Need To Help Out?

My most recent post on cultural change at Microsoft included a reference to the legacy of Bill Gates, and suggested that he should be recruited to help in this endeavour. I thought it was useful to expand on why I think that is the case.

Change When The Founder Is Still Around

I think it would be folly for a new CEO at Microsoft to announce that the company’s culture doesn’t need a substantial change. Changing the culture is fundamental to turning around the weaker parts of the business, and will be needed to strengthen the good bits. But unlike other cultural changes, such as Ford and IBM, where the founder that effectively created the culture is no longer drawing breath, Ballmer’s predecessor is still around. People still remember Bill Gates, and not just “remember when”, but actually working for him. They have e-mails in their mail archives to and from the man. They sat in meetings with him. Bill hasn’t been gone from the Microsoft day-to-day long enough for his presence to have faded in any appreciable degree.

This presents a problem for any new CEO. Why? Because any change will include repudiating how things have been done in the past. A new culture means you can’t say “but that’s how we’ve always done it’ and use it to defend a particular approach or idea. The way things were done before have lead to a situation where Microsoft has become less relevant in key industries, particularly mobile technology. They are also facing risks in the game console market, where the XBox 360 has done very, very well, but the XBox One has seen resistance even before the roll-out. Past performance is no longer a valid defence of current or future actions.

Virtually everything in Microsoft’s portfolio is based on something that has roots in products or technologies developed when Bill was the CEO. The look, the feel and the “image” are all based on a culture and an attitude set by the founder, and one that still pervades what people do, how things work and how they look today. 13 years seems like a long time in technology, but those initial foundations underpin everything that Microsoft does. This isn’t unusual. UNIX and Linux are still informed and guided by attitudes and philosophies laid down by the Bell Labs team in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The Mac and iOS devices are still guided by principles from the original Macintosh in 1984. Despite the fast moving surface changes in technologies, a lot of the guiding principles and philosophies go back a very long time. Comparatively speaking, 13 years is still recent history.

Recruiting Bill Gates

Bill Gates isn’t actively involved in the day-to-day at Microsoft, but he is still the chairman and one of the major shareholders. He will certainly have a hand in selecting a new CEO. But that new CEO would be wise to convince Bill to become more active in the first year or so of rebuilding the corporate culture. Bill’s word will still carry a tremendous amount of weight in the company. Don’t believe me? Consider that, inside and out, people refer to Bill Gates as “Bill” for the most part, but Steve Ballmer as “Ballmer”. Even I’ve done that here, and I know that most readers won’t be surprised by it.

As I said previously, change will include repudiating the way things have been done, including processes and principles set down by Bill. Not having Bill’s active and vocal approval could be seen by some Microsoft employees as an attack on Bill himself. If Bill doesn’t step up and support them, and explain why he agrees with these changes, then that weakens the position of the new CEO. It can create resistance and friction inside the company that undermines the hoped-for improvements. Undoing or changing things that Ballmer set in motion won’t have the same problems, in part because Ballmer doesn’t carry the same sort of “weight” inside the company. My impression is that many inside the company will be glad to see some of Ballmer’s processes and principles undone.

Of course, getting Bill’s support will have to include getting his approval. The man is very smart, and has a very strong personality, and I don’t expect him to support something he doesn’t agree with, or will at least consent to. That presents a challenge to any new CEO, but I think that, if they can convince Bill Gates that a particular change is the right thing to do, then they can easily convince the rest of the company as well. A new CEO will need some latitude, but there will be key times and key decisions where having Bill’s visible support in front of the people in Microsoft, will be more easily implemented.

Change Won’t Be Easy

Remaking Microsoft’s culture won’t be easy. It can be done (look at Ford and IBM as contemporary examples). But with changes likely requiring a re-think on current philosophies and principles, some set down by a founder that is part of recent memory, and a big part of the current culture, that presents unique challenges. Getting help from that founder may be a key part in making change happen.

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