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.