by Rob Enderle

8 Leadership Lessons From Steve Ballmer

Aug 22, 20147 mins
IT JobsIT LeadershipRelationship Building

No one will forget Steve Ballmer's tenure at Microsoft. As he steps down from the board to bring his unique energy to owning the L.A. Clippers, here's a look at eight leadership lessons you can learn from the colorful former CEO.

Steve Ballmer has stepped down from Microsoft’s board, and he certainly won’t be forgotten. I followed Ballmer closely in his years running Microsoft and learned a lot from both his successes and failures.

We often look at successful CEOs such as Steve Jobs or Jack Welch, assume they’re brilliant and emulate everything they did. That’s how we got forced ranking from Welch – which turned out to be one of the major reasons behind Microsoft’s slide.

[ News: Ballmer Quits Microsoft Board, Cites NBA Commitments ]

Learning from the mistakes of others is often even more important than learning from their successes, since you don’t have to repeat their painful experiences. Let’s cover the things I learned from Ballmer that will color the advice I give other executives going forward.

Do a 100 Percent Makeover or Do Nothing At All

Before Ballmer took over Microsoft, there was the infamous “Monkey Boy” video, shot when he got in front of the Microsoft sales team for a motivational talk and told it to focus on “Developers, developers, developers!”

This tactic isn’t at all unusual in motivational talks. Speakers are expected to be passionate and animated. Plus, his focus turned out to be prophetic: Apple and Google beat Microsoft with iOS and Android because they got more developers, developers, developers.

Rather than applaud Ballmer’s performance and foresight, though, folks made fun of him. He took it to heart. Ballmer underwent a makeover, lost the passion and became a competent – but dull – public speaker.

[ In His Own Words: The Best Quotes of Steve Ballmer ]

Privately, Ballmer retained his passion, but it exhibited itself in stories of yelling or throwing furniture. This made him look a bit unhinged – controlled in public, a bit crazy in private – and didn’t help his image at all. I think his passion was more of an asset than a liability, but if you’re going to submerge a behavior, submerge it all the way and replace it with something equally compelling. The change didn’t work for Ballmer because it wasn’t needed and it wasn’t done well.  

Be Brief

Many people say in two pages what should be said in one sentence. Ballmer isn’t one of them; he says in three words what others can’t. This precision allowed him to personally touch more people.

When running a large organization or talking to media, rambling at best wastes time and at worst loses the point, causes the listener to daydream and may result in saying something you didn’t intend to say.   Ballmer always exemplified of brevity. This worked very well for him.  

Numbers Matter

Ballmer was a numbers guy. In a world increasingly run by analytics, this will become an asset far greater than it was while he ran Microsoft. Numbers forces you to look at the measurable facts, to ask for solid information and to constantly challenge what’s important.

Ballmer’s focus on numbers might have been a bit over the top. However, given that numbers increasingly define our successes and failures, having a strong basis and fondness for looking at and understanding numbers will separate the successful executives from those who fail.

Select People for Loyalty, Not Competence

This is one mistake Ballmer made. I’m not suggesting you select incompetent people. Instead, you should value those who can demonstrate loyalty and team-playing over those who are more competent but possess massive egos and don’t play well with others.

The silos that crippled the company and created many of Microsoft’s biggest mistakes stemmed from the inability of really bright people to work with their peers. You can blame some of this on forced ranking, which pits employees against each other, but a lot of it happened because being smart seemed to trump playing well with others. The end result: A lot of smart backstabbers.

That’s not a skill you want to promote – particularly if you’re the top guy with the back that’s most likely to be stabbed. This would be like an assassin hiring underlings who are very focused on upward mobility; his life expectancy would be very short. You want people to have your back, not stick something sharp in it.

Validate Your Information

Ballmer’s focus on numbers actually worked against him at times. That’s because he often received corrupted numbers designed to drive a particular decision or simply give Ballmer the answer he wanted. The old term “garbage in, garbage out” applies here; too much of what Ballmer was fed was inaccurate, which led to a series of disastrous decisions.

[ More: Forget Big Data, the Value Is in ‘Big Answers’ and Analytics Helps IT Vendors Sell Actual Solutions ]

You have to constantly make sure that information is accurate. Don’t work against this by shooting messengers or letting executives get away with trickery. CEOs in particular can find themselves isolated by direct reports who either want to manipulate them or simply make them happy by falsifying or limiting what the CEO sees. This kills companies and makes even the best CEOs ineffective.

Don’t Isolate Yourself

Before becoming CEO, Ballmer talked to people both inside and outside Microsoft to gain perspective. After becoming, CEO he allowed himself to be isolated by those who apparently wanted to better control the outcome of his engagements. I saw this happen to the only CEO who was ever fired from IBM, John Akers.

[ Commentary: 7 Things CEO Do to Get Fired ]

There are always those who want to either protect or control people in power by limiting their access. If that’s allowed to happen, bad things go unnoticed for too long. At best, the executive is ineffective; at worst, he or she fails and takes the company down, too. One advantage of maintaining contact both inside and outside the company is that it showcases areas where you’re being misled while you still have the authority to take action.

Don’t Run Your Predecessor’s Shop

Ballmer figured this out in the end, albeit too late. Up until the final Microsoft reorganization, he basically ran Bill Gates’ company but lacked Gates’ unique skill set. On the other hand, Jobs transformed Apple into something he could run. (Successor Tim Cook is making Apple his own company, too.)

You have two choices as a new executive: Change your skills to match the organization’s needs or change the organization to match yours. Ballmer isn’t a software expert and it’s actually pretty amazing that he did as well as he did, given that he ran a company designed around a software expert. Ballmer could never match Gates, but he eventually made changes to Microsoft that better reflected his unique strengths. Ballmer successor Satya Nadella has been asserting himself from the beginning. This bodes well for his term in the CEO office.

Rediscover Fun

The last time I ever saw Ballmer really smile was during a meeting I had with him shortly after the announcement that he would take the job. He grinned as he waved goodbye from his limo window and passed me out of the complex.

This brings me to my final lesson: Have fun. If you don’t enjoying a job – any job – find a way out. As Ballmer finally steps away from Microsoft and toward something that looks far more fun, I hope many of us can find a way to put the smiles back on our own faces. A job can be an amazing, fun experience – or it can be a prison.

My final lesson from Steve Ballmer: Escape the prison and find a way back to that smile that those around you likely remember so fondly.