Preston Gralla: Why Ford's CEO is wrong for Microsoft

Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally, a front-runner for the top slot at Microsoft, is a smart manager and a well-known turnaround artist -- exactly the kind of person many believe would be ideal to take over as CEO. But Mulally is the wrong person for Microsoft.

Mulally certainly has plenty of pluses. He's an engineer who rose through the ranks at Boeing to become president and CEO of the Boeing Commercial Airplanes division. In 2006, he took over as CEO at struggling carmaker Ford, restructuring it and turning it around. Between the time he took over the company and the end of September of this year, Ford stock was up 103%.

He also appears to have the "soft skills" that have been sometimes lacking at Microsoft. Forrester Research analyst David Johnson told Computerworld: "Mulally has a long track record of building company cultures with a positive outlook and trust, infusing the organization with confidence and energy. He's seen as a cheerleader and advocate for employees -- an essential quality for turnarounds."

So what's not to like?

Plenty, at least for the leadership of Microsoft.

The biggest problem is that Mulally is the wrong kind of engineer. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. That's a big achievement, and obviously ideal for Boeing and pertinent to a certain extent for Ford. But for Microsoft? Not at all. What software experience does he have? Not much. What is his track record in dealing with the twin challenges of heading a company that is both consumer-oriented and IT-focused? He has none. How will his aeronautical engineering background help him in the challenges Microsoft faces in mobile technology, productivity suites, cloud-based computing, Internet search and more? It won't.

Mulally has shown at Boeing and Ford that he's an excellent manager. But that hasn't been Microsoft's problem. For all of Steve Ballmer's faults, he did reasonably well rated strictly as a manager. He's got an MBA from Stanford, and he used that management expertise well. Costs aren't out of control. The company has a top-notch sales staff. Profit margins are high. From a purely managerial perspective, the company is in good shape.

Microsoft's big problem is vision, and that's where Mulally falls short. He has no experience in developing the kinds of products that Microsoft needs, no way of figuring a way out of the Windows 8 debacle, of guiding the development of a mobile operating system and a strategy that will help Microsoft gain serious market share. In a tech company, vision isn't something you can delegate to underlings. You have to have it yourself. That's why Ballmer's leadership was less than stellar.

Mulally has some experience in developing consumer technology with Microsoft, and it didn't go well. Under his leadership, Ford and Microsoft developed the MyFord Touch infotainment interface for Ford cars. David Champion, head of auto testing for Consumer Reports magazine, told CNN that the system has had many problems, including computer crashes. A class-action suit has been filed against Ford in California over defects in the system.

Mulally has clearly been an excellent leader at both Boeing and Ford. But he wouldn't be one at Microsoft. He's the wrong person for the job.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Related reading: Scot Finnie also wonders about Microsoft's future. See "Can Microsoft Make a Comeback After Ballmer?"

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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