Sinofsky and the power vacuum inside Microsoft

13 Nov 2012

Ray Ozzie, Jeff Raikes, Robbie Bach, J Allard and now – most surprisingly of all – Steven Sinofsky: the list of internal candidates to succeed Steve Ballmer has been crossed off, one by one.

This morning, despite years of rumblings of discontent from investors about Ballmer’s leadership, the Microsoft CEO has probably never been more secure. With Ballmer having seen off all the likely internal contenders to his throne, the Microsoft board must either continue to stand by their man or appoint externally.

It was his irascible, Jobs-like qualities that may have led to his departure at Microsoft

When Microsoft’s board decided how much of his bonus to award Ballmer in October, it was largely Sinofksy he had to thank for banking 91% of his eligible target. The failures that cost Ballmer 9% of his bonus were a decline in revenue from Windows Live, slow progress in online services and the failure to provide a browser ballot on certain Windows PCs in Europe – only the latter of which Sinofsky could be held accountable for. But when it came to the big ticket items: delivering Windows 8 on schedule and making an impact with Surface, Sinofsky – as ever - delivered.

Little wonder, then, that he was increasingly being touted as the next Microsoft boss. He’d successfully overhauled the two Microsoft cash cows – Office and Windows – and certainly had the charisma and intellect to become the public face of the company. Indeed, in 2009 I wrote that he was a decent contender to replace Steve Jobs at Apple.

However, it was his irascible, Jobs-like qualities that may have led to his departure at Microsoft. A profile published by CNet last month claimed that he had fought power battles and fallen out with almost all of Microsoft’s senior management over the years, including Ballmer himself.

“Sinofsky's rise to the corner office is hardly a sure thing,” CNet’s Jay Greene wrote. “Senior managers recognise how divisive Sinofsky can be. He may well be the right guy to get Windows out the door, but his temperament may not be suited to run a giant and iconic corporation.” Such qualities didn't seem to do Jobs and Apple much harm.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that, in the statement announcing Sinofsky’s successor, Julie Larson-Green, Ballmer praises her “great communication skills” and “proven ability to work across product groups”.

Microsoft may be more peaceful without Sinofksy prowling the corridors, but will it be more successful?  That is far from certain.

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