Second Guessing Steve Ballmer

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Second guessing Steve Ballmer.

I’ve never kissed anyone’s ass for any reason. (American dating rituals excluded.) Quite the opposite in fact. Just ask my boss how much time he’s spent in the past few years smoothing over an executive’s feathers after some bunt expression of mine.

I’m gonna say some nice things about Steve Ballmer (and I don’t have the warm and fuzzies about every Microsoft executive). If you think this makes my an ass-kisser….. Bite me ! J

Microsoft encourages employees to think (and act) like shareholders. (Most of us are, in fact, shareholders.)

I own what is for me, a lot of Microsoft stock. I took stock options when I joined Microsoft to partially offset a huge cut in pay from my prior position. (A pay cut I took because I WANTED to work at Microsoft and to do a specific job at Microsoft.)

I work HARD all year, because, while Microsoft doesn’t pay big salaries, they reward great performance at review time, in part with stock.

But more than that, I BUY Microsoft stock EACH WEEK with my own money. Note: that’s real cash that I could take and spend each week. (Well, every other week.)

Now, I tell you this because I hope it hints to you that I work for a company that I really believe in. One that I believe in strongly enough make the choice to invest a big part of my future, my wife and my retirement, and my children’s education in.

Steve Ballmer runs that company.

His detractors love to take pot shots at Steve for his enthusiasm. We’ve all seen parodies of an "out of shape" SteveB running around the stage and chanting "Developers, Developers, Developers".

This type of sniping is endemic to the human condition. Smart kids pick on jocks for being stupid (because they envy their popularity.) Athletes pick on the smart kids for being geeks because deep down they know they will always be taking direction from one of "them"). We average looking people pick on the "beautiful people" for being shallow (because we would like to look just a little more like them.) The beautiful people pick on the rest of us because we’re not "beautiful" (because they worry that beauty is all they have and they know that it can’t last.)

Maybe so many people pick on Steve simply because his achievements rose him to run the best known and most prestigious company in the world.

I mean, it can’t really be because he doesn’t look like Brad Pitt, or because he doesn’t play for the Lakers!

As an investor in Microsoft, I like Steve because he spends his entire work day (probably about 20 hours per) thinking about how to keep Microsoft stable, how to grow our business, how to streamline our operations.

Let me tell you why I like him as an employee.

It’s nothing grand.

Now, I’ve never been a "big time" business manager like Steve, but I’ve started and built a few companies, balanced the books, sat on both sides of the venture capital process, and even run a publicly traded company.

I prefer the technical aspect of my work, but can’t help but contemplate Microsoft’s business positions and strategies. What’s more, I get to do it as an armchair quarterback without having to go out on the business limb myself. (My money’s better off in Steve’s hands than my own anyway.)

A few years ago I read Louis Gerstner’s book "Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance".

The book, which I thought was brilliant, detailed the debilitating problems that IBM experienced in the days after its DOJ problems, the cultural stagnation that plagued IBM in those days and what Gershner did to pull IBM from the edge of dissolution and return it to a position of significance in the industry.

After reading the book, I though there were a great number of similarities to observations that was making at Microsoft at the time and I wrote a rather lengthy paper on those issues at Microsoft, the cause of the concerns, and my proposed solutions.

After finishing the paper, which I simply wrote as a "think at the keyboard" exercise, I wanted to send it to someone who might use it as a catalyst for thought. My own manager at the time would likely not have been interested, and somehow I decided to email it to SteveB.

I didn’t actually think it would get to Steve. I mean, who knew that an executive at his level still reads his own email??

I emailed the entire paper to Steve’s public email address late that evening.

I got a reply from Steve the following morning – with action items that he was originating. Five weeks later at that year’s Microsoft Global Briefing, I saw his actions implemented live on stage.

I’ve had a few conversations with Steve in email since. I’ve brought him a couple of problems. (Note: only stupid employees pollute an executive’s in-box with concerns they clearly don’t need to know about.)

I’ve had responses like, "I’m back in Redmond next week – how can I help", and "don’t worry about the internal politics, just take care of the customer!" In one email he even remembered that my wife should be having a baby in that timeframe and asked how things were going.

Now does that sound like your average executive with 30,000 employees, a huge company to run, and most of the world trying to communicate with you? How does someone in his position stay that connected to his organization?

I’m not that significant in the grand scheme of Microsoft. But Steve Ballmer sure hasn’t treated my like a nobody – so for this, and his business success, he has my loyalty.

I’ve heard Steve (and Bill) talk about how they value their Microsoft family. Almost all executives pay that sort of lip services. How many actually DO IT?

That is the CULTURE that Steve has perpetuated at Microsoft. That culture is alive and well in my own organization.

My bosses boss (Pat Hays) once found out I spent my own money one some equipment to do some research for a project that I wanted to do at Microsoft. I never asked my own manager (Mike Oneil) because I hadn’t really thought it all through.

Most managers would have said, cool, the research gets done and we don’t have to pay for it. Pat said "if it’s real research and it will help Joe expand his reach next year, then we should be supporting him (while staying fiscally responsible) – I don’t want to run the kind of organization where we don’t invest in peoples ideas".


My manager, Mike Oneal (Mike got promoted, so now he’s actually my boss’ boss) has done many things that illustrate this culture. Read back though my blog, I often comment about them.

So pick on Steve all you want. In my book he’s making the world a better place by building a culture of diversity, and individualized value, a great place to work – and a strong organization that will help secure my future and that of my family.

What did YOU do today ? J