Steve Ballmer recently announced his retirement setting off a firestorm of analysis of his career at Microsoft. I don’t want to get into the pluses and minuses of someone’s career — that’s for history to decide — but we should acknowledge a very simple fact: Very few people have contributed as much to society as Steve Ballmer.
Along with Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer democratized computing for the world. The two of them had a vision to put a computer on every desk and in every home, and in 20 years flat they achieved a level of unprecedented scale in that mission. No one can really debate the impact of MSDOS and Windows in bringing affordable computing to the mass market. Think about that. It’s really an astounding achievement that wholly changed global society. There are very few people you can say that about. And with today’s news that Microsoft will acquire the handset and services business of Nokia to strengthen their mobile offerings, Steve’s influence will continue to have a lasting impact well after his career at Microsoft is over.
As someone who worked with Steve very closely for a number of years I wanted to share a few things I learned from him, which have helped me tremendously during my own career. Working alongside Steve I learned some of the most valuable lessons of my career, many of which I’ve chronicled here on LinkedIn. But as I reflect on my many interactions with Steve spanning over 15 years, I have been most impacted by 5 lessons:
Courage and Convictions.
The hallmark of the best leaders is to think big and to stay the course despite short term adversity. Steve was exceptional at thinking big and with a long time horizon. That led to the creation of a brand-new Xbox and Xbox LIVE business which now underpins a revolutionary connected entertainment strategy. That led to the formation of a huge server and enterprise business and now underpins Azure cloud services. That led to the formation of a new communications business which includes Lync and Skype and underpins a whole new way to think about productivity and collaboration. Very few companies have gone from being a successful one-trick pony to being successful multi-trick pony. It requires deep belief and courage to follow the true north with conviction. Steve taught a whole generation of leaders how to handle short term adversity for the right long term innovation.
Be a detail-oriented leader.
Steve leads by example. When you interact with him, he really makes you think. He is a master of precision questioning to analyze and get to the root issues of any problem whether it is business or technology related. As an individual he is very smart and inspires everyone who interacts with him to up their own game. Over the years as I presented to him, it helped me hone my own critical thinking and always consider the second order derivative for each problem; to dig deeper and test underlying assumptions that power many flawed conclusions.
While some organizations are quick to celebrate success and gloss over failures; Steve fostered a culture that was very self-critical. Every review with Steve began with a deep discussion of lowlights and learnings. Bad news was never punished. It was always a lesson to be smarter for the future. I remember a key software that I was responsible for failed at a very inopportune time in the midst of a major promotion as a result of an unusual set of rare circumstances. My team and I were working round the clock to re-launch the service. I immediately sent Steve a note describing what had happened and the measures to recover. It was the day after Thanksgiving when everyone was with their family. Steve sent me a response in matter of minutes expressing full support for all decisions we were making and expressed deep appreciation to the team for sacrificing their family time. Over the course of the day, he checked in a few times with me and each discussion simply revolved around thinking about how what we could do to make our customers happy once the service went back on. He taught me to always look at lowlights with a positive lens and to grow from the situation and do better the next day.
Focus on talent.
Steve really values talent. He and Bill are known for the time they personally spend in discussing talent and creating programs and an environment to nurture new leaders. Some of the top CEOs in our industry have emerged from Microsoft – Kevin Johnson of Juniper, Stephen Elop of Nokia (who now is back to Microsoft), Blake Irving of GoDaddy, Paul Maritz of Pivotal, just to name a few. Each of us who graduated from the Microsoft school of management beliefs carry the same laser focus in recruiting, retaining and growing our teams. It is the mold created by Steve.
Steve runs a company of nearly 100,000 employees that operates in nearly every country in the planet. He meets thousands of people inside and outside the company every year. Yet he has a remarkable ability to connect with everyone individually and remember them. As I was making the tough decision to leave Microsoft to join EA, Steve and I met several times. As we chatted, we also reminisced about the past and it was amazing at the memory he had of some of our interactions that were over a decade old. He changed his schedule on a dime to meet with me and really understand my motivations for the change I was about to make. The warmth and genuineness of each of our discussions is a testament to Steve as a leader. No person despite any difference of business opinion will leave a meeting with Steve feeling un-respected or unvalued. I try and carry that with me in all my own interactions and emulate a man who I came to respect and admire over the past 15 years.
Not everything Microsoft has done over the past decade has been a smashing success. The most notable misses have been in search and mobile. The company is recovering steadily in the former and is now a viable #2 to Google. Mobile is a bigger uphill climb and only time will tell if the company can recover and be a viable third ecosystem behind iOS and Android. Notwithstanding these, it is a fact that Steve Ballmer tripled revenues and doubled profits in 13 years. That is not an insignificant achievement. But even more importantly, for me personally, interacting with Steve taught me invaluable lessons in leadership and for that I’ll always be grateful.
Photo credit: DigitalTrends.com
– by Rajat Taneja, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Electronic Arts