Recently a TV reporter asked me if Microsoft would survive without Bill Gates. I tried hard not to roll my eyes.
"I realise there's a temptation to identify with the founder of a company," I said.
"But he's put a good succession plan in place. Ford managed to survive without Henry Ford, and I think Microsoft will survive without Bill Gates."
I barely mentioned Steve Ballmer, because I wasn't sure how well he would be recognised by a mainstream audience. Although he's a familiar face within corporate IT departments, I'd argue he's still not a household name.
Here are a few of the things he needs to do next, whether he ever becomes one or not:
1. Make user education a corporate mission. We all know there are more features in Word, Excel and Windows itself that customers simply do not understand. As a result, they spend too much time and energy working around problems Microsoft's products already solve. Ballmer should invest some marketing dollars in a "Did You Know That Windows Can..." campaign that highlights the work Microsoft's developers have done.
2. Don't leave the technical vision to Ray Ozzie. The former Groove Networks leader is capable of great insight into technology trends and writing extremely long staff memos, but it should be Ballmer who most clearly articulates the kind of computing environments Microsoft wants to help customers build in the next decade. The last thing he should want is to be seen as merely the sales guy. As Steve Jobs proves, you don't have to write code to offer some inspiring thoughts on the management of information. Even Gates left too much of the heavy lifting to his subordinates during keynotes. Ballmer should try to change that.
3. Open yourself up as a case study. It can't be easy running one of the world's largest companies, so Ballmer should be able to provide CIOs and IT managers a unique perspective on how Microsoft uses technology to align itself with business objectives. He should talk about Microsoft walks the walk.
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