Why Steve Ballmer could fix the U.S. government

Columnist Rob Enderle writes that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has created a new organization called USAFacts to analyze and shed light on government spending and revenue.

Ballmer
Credit: Microsoft

You could also title this piece: “You should listen to your spouse,” but I’ll get to that. Steve Ballmer had a tough time as CEO of Microsoft largely because he had the wrong skill set to run that company. However, he did earn the right to try and by most measures he is arguably one of the smartest guys on the planet. But, his extreme intelligence is largely focused on one area: numbers. The guy is kind of a mathematical savant, which works if you are going to be a COO or CFO, not so much if you are going to be a CEO. This is because CEOs need to be more into people and product and those weren’t Steve’s strengths. Now, post Microsoft, Steve has found an interesting hobby. At the request of his wife, he has put together an effort to understand where the money goes in government.  

This sits solidly in his wheelhouse and it could lay a critical foundation for fixing problems like ineffective defense spending, under-resourced social and law enforcement programs, and make Obamacare better (as in make the “Affordable” part of the Affordable Health Care Act less of an oxymoron).  

I think there are several life lessons here and the very real result that Ballmer’s current effort could easily outshine everything else he has done in his life including help create Microsoft.  

Know what you are good at

I see a lot of folks who make a ton of money, but are relatively unhappy. You could describe Ballmer’s run as CEO of Microsoft in two ways: Microsoft’s stalled decade or Ballmer’s angry years. He made a ton of money, he had a ton of power, the job was what he’d always wanted to do -- and yet by every objective measure I could see, he hated doing it so a lot of what needed to get done didn’t.  

[ Related: Why happiness matters more than compensation ]

There is a huge life lesson here and it goes into taking the time early on to understand the eventual job you want to hold and figure out if you’d be happy in it. Yes, the job of the CEO has status, it has money, and it has power (though far less than you’d think). However, it requires an eclectic kind of person who is good at maintaining a balance between their personal lives and work; who doesn’t mind being isolated; who won’t abuse the power they have; who doesn’t have poor impulse control; and they have to be adept with both people and the product. There are a few great CEOs, however, the clear majority tend to suck at the job they fought their entire life to get.  

Ballmer was a phenomenal second in command, but failed as a CEO largely because the things he enjoyed just didn’t seem to be in that final job.   Ideally, after a few years, he should have stepped down and gone back to doing the job he exceled at, but we don’t do that with executives. We execute the Peter Principle and then, when it is proven, we boot them out. I think that is a waste, but that hasn’t reversed this stupid policy.  

Ballmer, the numbers savant

One thing Steve is almost magically good at is numbers. He ran a boot camp and Microsoft and pretty much showcased that, with numbers, no one could touch him. Ballmer is so good he’d have been truly scary as an internal or external auditor.   I can imagine his alternative career in that role being marred by CFOs, and CEOs, jumping out windows in the opening meetings. Now it seems, he has applied what could be legitimately described as a super power in math, to government and it appears to be brilliant!

USAFacts

Call this one of the most powerful efforts to combat fake news yet identified. USAFacts, which Ballmer is championing, is a nonpartisan effort to create an integrated look at where the money goes in government. And he is looking at all levels: local, state and federal.   Basically, he is creating a 10-K for government.  

It seems government is generally run largely by lying to the people about what is being done and why. Sometimes this is because the politicians have no clue what is doing on, and sometimes it’s because they just don’t want us to know what is going on. There seems to be a standard belief, regardless of party, that if we knew the truth we wouldn’t do what needs to be done.   I’m not a subscriber to that belief and feel strongly that, without the facts, no one can make good decisions. Living in a world of fake news isn’t doing anyone any favors.

There has been a long-standing belief that if we could just find and eliminate the waste we could fund much of what we want funded without raising taxes. In fact, we might even be able to do most of what we needed to and lower taxes, but the first step is to figure out where the money went and that is USAFacts.  

Listen to your wife

There is a tendency, particularly for us boomers, to discount the fact that our spouses are not only part of the team, but often the smarter part (don’t tell my wife). Case in point, it was Ballmer’s wife Connie who came up with this idea and, if she hadn’t, Steve’s super power in math would largely go unused.

Instead, USAFacts may provide the foundation for fixing problematic issues like Obamacare. In addition, it may provide an example for other retired billionaires who could, in turn, fund programs that could make huge differences in the countries they reside in just by helping their neighbors, and honest politicians (I’m told they actually do exist) get to the actual facts.  

Now that would be a huge legacy and a great example.  

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