Revelations about why Ballmer was pushed out give hints on new Microsoft CEO choice

It's now clear that Steve Ballmer was pushed to leave Microsoft, rather than making the decision on his own. The Wall Street Journal has new revelations about why Ballmer left, as well as possible clues about who will be Microsoft's next CEO.

The Journal article is based on a series of interviews with Ballmer as well as with Microsoft board members and others. It portrays a board unhappy with the direction Microsoft was taking under Ballmer, and pushing hard on him to make changes far faster than he had been prepared to. Ultimately, that pressure led Ballmer to decide to resign.

The story begins nearly a year ago, in a January 2013 conference call Ballmer had with the Microsoft board. Unhappy with the slow pace that Ballmer had adopted in trying to change Microsoft, lead director John Thompson told him:

"Hey, dude, let's get on with it. We're in suspended animation."

That led to months of soul-searching for Ballmer, and increasing calls by the board for him to move faster to remake Microsoft. Ballmer began to recognize that perhaps the biggest roadblock to change was the competitive culture of in-fighting at the company that he in part inculcated, and that a new culture needed to be put in place. He told the Journal that he thought:

"I'll remake my whole playbook. I'll remake my whole brand."

Eventually, though, he says he came to the realization that:

"At the end of the day, we need to break a pattern Face it: I'm a pattern."

And that was that. He decided to retire, which didn't surprise the board, given that they had been constantly pushing him to move more quickly, and he had been unable to do so.

What do the revelations in the article say about who will be the next Microsoft CEO? The board and investors clearly want someone interested in breaking with Microsoft's past and is capable of doing it quickly. Brent Thill, Microsoft analyst at UBS AG told the Journal:

"At this critical juncture, Wall Street wants new blood to bring fundamental change."

That theme -- change done quickly -- was echoed by just about everyone interviewed in the article. Because of that, I don't think it's particularly likely that the board will be choosing a long-time Microsoftie such as Satya Nadella, in charge of cloud and enterprise for Microsoft, or Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner.

Instead, it will likely turn to current Ford CEO Alan Mulally, former Nokia CEO (and past and soon-to-be Microsoft employee) Stephen Elop, or business development and evangelism chief Tony Bates, who came to Microsoft 2011 as CEO of Skype when Microsoft bought Skype.

Of the three, Mulally is the biggest outsider because he's never worked at Microsoft, and has shown that he is capable of quickly changing a giant corporation, as he's done at Ford. Based on the board's desire for fast change, I think that gives him the inside track. As I've said before, though, I think that Bates would be a better choice, because he's more entrepreneurial, a better technical fit, and more experienced in the technologies that Microsoft needs to crack if it's going to succeed.

No matter who is chosen, though, it will probably happen sooner than later. Bloomberg reports that Microsoft's board is meeting today to winnow the list of CEO candidates to between three and five.

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