Steve Ballmer's temper tantrum over Nokia buyout led to his firing, says report

Steve Ballmer's famously volcanic temper was the last straw for Microsoft's board, and eventually led to his firing after he berated them so loudly about their not backing his Nokia buyout plan that his shouts could be heard outside the closed doors of a conference room. So reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

Was there more to the firing than just Ballmer's temper tantrum?

The article by Bloomberg BusinessWeek provides an excellent look at Ballmer's last days, the hiring of Satya Nadella as his replacement, and the issues that led to Ballmer's firing.

The most dramatic part of the piece recounts a June 2013 meeting Ballmer had with the board. Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports:

Ballmer’s relations with the board hit a low when he shouted at a June meeting that if he didn’t get his way he couldn’t be CEO, people briefed on the meeting said. The flare-up was over his proposed purchase of most of Nokia Oyj, and part of an ongoing debate: Should Microsoft be a software company or a hardware company too?

His yelling was so loud, says the report, that it could be heard outside of the closed doors of the conference room. He was angry because the board initially didn't back his buying of Nokia. After his blowup, though, they ended up reluctantly backing him.

Ballmer's tantrum should surprise no one. His temper is legendary. Just take a look at the recollection of Mark Lucovsky, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft who was lured to Google in November, 2004. Lucovsky said this in a statement filed in a suit between Google and Microsoft over Google hiring Vice President of Interactive Services Kai-Fu Lee away from Microsoft:

"Prior to joining Google, I set up a meeting on or about November 11, 2004 with Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer to discuss my planned departure...At some point in the conversation Mr. Ballmer said: 'Just tell me it’s not Google.' I told him it was Google.

"At that point, Mr. Ballmer picked up a chair and threw it across the room hitting a table in his office. Mr. Ballmer then said: 'F***ing Eric Schmidt is a f***ing pussy. I’m going to f***ing bury that guy, I have done it before, and I will do it again. I’m going to f***ing kill Google.'"

Ballmer, of course, did not end up f***ing burying Eric Schmidt, or f***ing killing Google. If anything, the reverse happened. And it's one thing to go postal in front of an engineer, but it's entirely something else to do so in front of the board for whom you work.

As portrayed in the article, Ballmer was at odds not just with the board over Microsoft becoming a hardware company with its launch of Surface tablets and the buying of Nokia, but with Bill Gates as well, who sided with the board. The split between the two was so bad, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek, that they didn't want to appear onstage together at this past November's shareholder meeting, and Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith had to act as a go-between to convince them to do it.

But although the tantrum may ultimately have led to Ballmer's firing, it was only a precipitating factor, and not the main cause. After all, Ballmer has been throwing tantrums for many years. No one at Microsoft seemed concerned about them until the company ran into problems. As long as the company was riding high, the board, Gates, and everyone else at Microsoft was only too happy to let Ballmer be Ballmer, which meant putting up with his temper.

There is some poetic justice in Ballmer's tantrum leading to him being let go, though. For once, the bully got bullied.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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