Why Microsoft Should Hire Nick Saban

By now, you've heard the news that longtime Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer is taking his song and dance show into retirement sometime within the next year. As the search for the next head honcho heats up, I'd like to suggest one unlikely candidate: University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban (or, at the very least, someone similar to Nick Saban in the tech world).

Maybe I've been watching too many old episodes of Friday Night Lights, or maybe I'm just a bit too excited about the return of college football (and the fact that my Ole Miss Rebels actually won Thursday night), but there's a lot about this scenario that makes sense to me.

Now, sure, I'll confess: There are some slight differences between leading an SEC football team that's captured the national title three of the past four years and running an aging technology company with a $277 billion market cap. For instance, one's a known winner and often ranked No. 1, whereas the other ... hmm.

And yes, there are differences in the workforce: differences between innovative, engaged techies, free to operate in an encouraging, supportive environment, the best bringing out their best versus a team of hard-working, hard-hitting, rules-following, precision-focused college athletes.

But there's the catch. There's been no shortage of reports suggesting that Microsoft, throughout Ballmer's 13-year tenure, has hardly been a place where the brightest technology workers can shine. Instead, it's become a bloated bureaucratic backwater, a nightmare of a place to be if you had new ideas and wanted to see them make it to market. Innovation was squashed and entrenched interests, instead, protected. Tales abound of smart early developments like tablets and e-books being either ignored entirely or watered down to fit the Windows model.

While Microsoft's cultural troubles seem clear, it also faces recruitment challenges. The fact is talent matters, whether we're talking about recruiting the best football players from high schools across the nation or recruiting the best programmers and computer engineers from across the world. You've got to be able to attract top talent, and then get the best out of them. And while I'm certainly not suggesting that the culture at Microsoft and the culture in the Alabama locker-room should be or could be identical, I do think Redmond can learn a thing or two from Tuscaloosa here.

To right its business and become a technology leader in, well, anything at all, Microsoft has to convince the smart folks that it's the place to be -- and then be that place. It has to find a way to attract tech stars to its ranks, stars that probably were destined for Google or Apple or Amazon.com. It's not unlike Alabama persuading a stand-out receiver from Oklahoma to skip four years in Norman at OU and come to play in the SEC instead. You can't do that without having leadership people believe in and trust, and a culture that supports and demands excellence. It takes time, yes, but once your recruiting edge is rock-solid, it's hard for others to compete with you for talent.

Saban is laser-focused on recruiting (so much so that after Alabama beat LSU in the 2012 national championship, Saban was reportedly upset that the festivities leading up to the big game cost him recruiting time -- never mind that winning the game was probably the biggest recruitment boon he could hope for). I suspect quite a few high school football players would do just about anything to play for Saban, and Microsoft's next head needs to inspire that same devotion and dedication to winning.

Of course I'm having some fun here, and I obviously realize that unlike Saban, whoever heads up Microsoft next won't be out in the field himself or herself, recruiting and interviewing prospective employees one-on-one. But I do think it's critical the company finds an inspiring leader who can fire up the ranks and get the best folks excited about working there. It needs someone who can persuade the brightest minds to join Microsoft, attacking areas where it's fallen behind. The new boss also has to help stop current employees from giving up and getting out. It's not going to happen overnight, but alongside any cultural changes, retaining and recruiting the right talent is crucial. Without it, longtime Microsoft shareholders like me (I've owned the stock for 15 years, so I got to "enjoy" all 13 of the Ballmer years) are in for more stagnation.

At least I can distract myself with football.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 31, 2013, at 9:09 AM, sunflower19 wrote:

    I found this article entertaining and some facts so true! Especially when you talked about the hiring process and how Microsoft has dropped the ball in hiring qualified talent. I can honestly say that since Mr. Gates left the Microsoft culture shifted towards the worse and so many talented people left and started their own consulting firms or went to competition and made them even better! Microsoft is not the great company it used to be and they are now just your average company with mediocre benefits! I wish Bill Gates would temporarily take the helm again until the company finds the right person to lead this once innovative company! We can only hope!

  • Report this Comment On August 31, 2013, at 10:56 AM, melissab1998 wrote:

    Roll Tide Roll!!!

  • Report this Comment On September 03, 2013, at 7:17 PM, cmalek wrote:

    "I do think Redmond can learn a thing or two from Tuscaloosa here."

    Redmond could learn from the man on the street, too, but the problem is that Redmond listens only to Redmond. For years users, private and corporate, have been trying to tell Redmond what they really need and want. But MSFT just kept on its merry way, arrogantly convinced that THEY know better what the users want or need.

  • Report this Comment On September 04, 2013, at 2:59 PM, jvgfool wrote:

    This article makes a lot of assumptions about Microsoft. I thought Fools don't invest on assumptions.

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2013, at 1:48 PM, chuckbreaux wrote:

    ROLL, TIDE, ROLL!!!

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2013, at 2:20 PM, damilkman wrote:

    Err, another football analogy. Seriously, I would not touch Saban with a ten foot pole nor would I want a CEO to emulate him. He was afraid of failure at the highest level and ran back to his comfort level. Saban is a fine college football coach who has won where ever he has gone. But if were using football analogies, I want a CEO who is going up against the best who show they can win when all things are equal. Those individuals are head coaches and GM's in the NFL.

    The Saban's and the Calapari's have nothing on a NFL coaching staff and front office. All they have shown is they know how to work system. I would rather take my chances with an inovator who was forced to do more with less or have an eye for talent that no one else has.

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2013, at 3:29 PM, mikecart1 wrote:

    I am not a fan of Saban as I feel him and several SEC coaches are the top tier of scum of all of NCAA football. And no me being a VT graduate doesn't lead to bias (not completely lol). But yeah, I have long believed and it has shown over the years that the SEC runs by its own rules. Basically, win at all costs. Recruit by any means necessary. Win titles no matter what rules you break. If you are caught, well, you won the titles anyways. If the titles are taken away, well, the money made by the program and school stays. Coach bank accounts remain untouched. Top players go onto the NFL without a care in the world for what they cheated on or were paid under the table while in school.

    Basically, Nick Saban running a company would be like the ultimate inside trader in the history of modern corporations.

    If I were to pick a coach, I'd agree with damilkman above:

    NCAA coaching tactics are OVERLY UNFAIR and UNBALANCED. The playing field is far more balanced in the NFL - although money buys talent there as well.

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2013, at 3:53 PM, banmate7 wrote:

    You mean MSFT should lie, cheat, and steal their way to victory? Yes, I realize that many allege that MSFT already does this, but I guess we'll agree to disagree.

    College football is a farce. Aside from schools like Notre Dame, Stanford, Northwestern, and the academies, most are semi-professional football factories. Suffice it to say, a good number of athletes are in watered down academic programs, cheat, and even then many don't graduate.

    There is a massive difference being a football player at Stanford or Notre Dame versus in the SEC. The latter simply get much more time to devote to football. The former with their high graduation rates & meaningful course work by fait accompli must commit more time to studies.

    Let's not get into the economic exploitation of athletes in this context. It's a farce. It's even a distraction. Many economically challenged folks would do better to study how to save & invest, as opposed of spending money in following schools many didn't even attend.

    Good thing corporate culture is so much more refined, idealistic, and lawful.

    :)

  • Report this Comment On September 06, 2013, at 3:47 PM, DavidBressler wrote:

    "Who will win the war?"

    Not Microsoft. They can teach us a lot about investing successfully: http://elephantspaycheck.com/blueprintbasics/investing-gambl...

    db

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