Steve Ballmer is a fierce in-fighter who gave every indication he'd be heading Microsoft for years to come. So his sudden retirement announcement leads to a big question: Did he make the decision on his own, or was he forced out?
Ballmer has finally done the right thing in retiring. It's long overdue. Under his watch, the company went from a widely feared, near-monopoly with a tight grip on the tech world to one trying to stay relevant in the new tech economy. In the most explosive growth areas -- notably Internet search and mobile -- Microsoft has become at best an also-ran.
There's plenty of guilt to go around for the fall. But the person at the top should take most of it, and that's Ballmer. There's no doubting his intelligence. But he was the wrong person with the wrong skills for the way technology has changed in the last ten years. He isn't an engineer or a product maven; instead he has a business, sales, and marketing focus. That kind of background is suited for times when business tactics are needed. It's not suited for times when tech vision is necessary. That's why Ballmer has been such a bad fit for Microsoft in recent years.
Ballmer never seemed to recognize that. Despite mounting criticism, he's stayed on the job, and said he was there for the long term.
That's why I think Ballmer didn't make this decision alone -- on his own, I don't think he would have retired this soon. I don't believe that he was directly told he had to retire, though. I think that he saw that he was going to be forced out, and decided to exit as gracefully as he could. Just consider the kinds of public criticisms he's endured over the last few years:
- In September of 2010, he received only half of his possible bonus due to failures related to the Kin, mobile phones, and tablets.
- In 2011, hedge fund manager David Einhorn said Ballmer should step down, saying "His continued presence is the biggest overhang on Microsoft's stock."
- On the site Glassdoor.com in 2012, Microsoft employees rated Ballmer as the worst tech CEO.
- Also in 2012, the Forbes writer Adam Hartung said Ballmer was America's worst CEO and deserved to be fired, writing "Without a doubt, Mr. Ballmer is the worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company today...he singlehandedly steered Microsoft out of some of the fastest growing and most lucrative tech markets (mobile music, handsets and tablets)...The reach of his bad leadership has extended far beyond Microsoft when it comes to destroying shareholder value -- and jobs."
- This year, former Microsoft executive Joachim Kempin, who headed Microsoft's OEM group before leaving the company in 2002, said Ballmer was Microsoft's biggest problem, and needed to be fired.
There's a lot more as well, but no need to pile on. The point is that Microsoft has floundered under his leadership, there have been increasing calls for him to go, and he likely finally recognized that eventually he'd be pushed out unless he jumped first. There's evidence of that in the internal email he sent to Microsoft employees announcing he was going to retire in a year. He wrote, in part:
"My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our transformation to a devices and services company focused on empowering customers in the activities they value most. We need a CEO who will be here longer term for this new direction."
You can read that ambiguous statement in multiple ways. My reading is that he's saying he wanted to stay during the heart of the transition, but now recognizes that he can't.
Ballmer hasn't been good for Microsoft in recent years. But he's shown that he wants to retire gracefully and not put Microsoft through a wrenching transition of power. That will end up being one of the best things he's ever done for the company.