Satya Nadella’s leadership dilemmas at Microsoft begin with Nokia

August 5, 2014

Paul Hinks

Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella became Microsoft’s third ever CEO in February 2014. He faces enormous challenges of change to an economic powerhouse

Since its inception 39 years ago, Microsoft has driven change. Its products have shaped and disrupted the IT landscape. Its desktop and server operating systems have become industry standards. Yet, relentless competition demands further changes. The new CEO recognizes the situation.

‘One Microsoft’

A few months into his appointment [10th July 2014], Nadella published an ‘internal memo ‘ in the public domain entitled: ‘One Microsoft’. The document provides insight into the strategic priorities at Microsoft – as well highlighting deeper leadership dilemmas. “The day I took on my new role I said that our industry does not respect tradition – it only respects innovation.” He wrote.

Changing landscapes and Microsoft’s previous success

Cloud Computing and Mobile technologies were focal points in the memo – repeated references to “a mobile-first and cloud-first world” emphasising where he feels Microsoft’s future lies.

A key dilemma and challenge for Nadella is that Microsoft no longer appears to be dominant in shaping the direction of the IT landscape. Microsoft’s desktop and server operating systems provide examples of different franchises that became de facto industry standards. Today we talk about firms such as Apple, Google and Amazon and how their products and services have momentum – the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Android phones – as well various cloud services.

It isn’t that Microsoft hasn’t tried to succeed in these new marketplaces – it has. It’s just that Microsoft’s success doesn’t mirror the success of its competitors. Microsoft has attempted to break into the tablet market but Apple still leads the way. Windows mobile phones competes against Android phones and iPhones, but they do not enjoy the passionate following that their competition enjoys.

Microsoft Axes 18,000 jobs

The acquisition of Nokia in 2013 provides an example of Microsoft’s efforts. Nokia was itself a market leader in the mobile telecommunications market before suffering a number of setbacks which saw its products fall out of vogue. Some analyst at the time saw merit and synergy in Microsoft’s acquisition. However on Thursday [17th July 2014] the BBC reported that Microsoft was announcing a loss of 18,000 jobs globally – the bulk of the cuts to be at Nokia:

Microsoft pledged to cut $600m (£350.8m) per year in costs within 18 months of closing the acquisition – cuts that were much more severe than the 6,000 initially expected. Is this acknowledgement that the Nokia deal was ultimately a failure? Or is it an example of how knowledge, know-how and patented technology can be bought lieu of ethical leadership and employees’ livelihoods?

The Future direction of Microsoft?

Nadella and Microsoft appear to recognize the challenges ahead. Change is necessary. Cloud Computing infrastructures are maturing; mobile online access is now ubiquitous – Nedella’s memo acknowledges Microsoft’s need to adapt and respond – repeated references to “mobile-first and cloud-first world” provide a clear indication of where he sees Microsoft’s future. Will change at Microsoft result in the progress needed for Microsoft to remain a dominant force?

Bill Gates’ 1990 vision of ‘Information at your fingertips’, and then his keynote speech at Jan 1995 Comdex of ‘information at your fingertips ‘ provide evidence of how Microsoft’s first CEO led the way and helped shape an industry.

Nadella has one of the toughest jobs in the industry, made more challenging by an expectation that Microsoft can remain creative and innovate. Not an easy task.


Leadership succession: Tony Blair, Terry Leahy, Alex Ferguson, Lord Browne … and Steve Ballmer

October 7, 2013

Leaders hailed as the greatest by direct comparison with their contemporaries often leave a legacy that is tough for a successor to deal with

This point was examined recently by journalist Chris Blackhurst [October 3rd 2013] in The Independent. He chose four towering figures from recent years, from politics, business, and sport.

He takes as his thesis that succeeding an influential leader is tough. His point is that the departure may be made with more concern by the leader for legacy than for the organisation’s longer term well-being.

The trigger

The article was triggered by the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United football club which was followed by a poor start to the season for the new manager David Moyes. Moyes was very much Ferguson’s chosen successor, one of clearest examples available of a leader’s critical decision over succession.

At Old Trafford, David Moyes has succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson, only to find that last season’s Premiership champions are in poor shape, that the Manchester United squad requires urgent strengthening. As worrying for United’s fans and owners is that Moyes appears to have been put in charge of a team in torpor. They’re no longer playing with the same drive and hunger that so characterised the Ferguson reign.

Blackhurst makes the general point succinctly:

Beware the chieftain who has been in office for a lengthy period; who is used to getting their way, who only needs to snap their fingers and it will be done; who refuses to countenance stepping down, to the extent that no successor is properly groomed; and when they do finally decide to go, it is too late. Quitting while ahead – it’s the best management attribute of all.

He illustrates with the examples of Tony Blair, Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco, and Lord Browne of BP. He touched briefly on Margaret Thatcher, and might have added Steve Jobs of Apple, and [another very recent example] Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. A closer examination suggests that the situations and the leaders are too varied to provide a nice clean theoretical idea. Was internal selection possible or desirable? Did the leader leave without being forced out? Was the evidence of declining personal abilities to do the job?

Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, announced his retirement a few years earlier and the market value of Manchester United plummeted. The evidence is that he retracted and spent the next few years considering how his eventual retirement might be planned more successfully. He did not ‘refuse to countenance stepping down’, although Margaret Thatcher’s political demise was closer to the description offered by Blackhurst.

Tony Blair was successful in winning three elections for Labour, which he had reshaped as New Labour. His legacy is haunted by his military policy in Iraq. Blair tried but was unable to arrange a successor he wanted. Gordon Brown is seen as contributing to Labour’s defeat at his first election. Sir Alex a close confident of Tony Blair seems to have learned from his friend the art of personal retirement planning with an impressive and rapid entry into the lucrative celebrity circuit.

Terry Leahy at Tesco appears to have selected Philip Clarke or agreed with the decision. Mr Clarke found that the company was in near free fall.

Lord Browne, whom Blackhurst suggested stayed to long at BP, left after personal problems. His chosen successor Tony Hayward was engulfed by the greatest disaster to befall the company.

Steve Jobs left Apple for health grounds, but had some say in the appointment of his successor.

Lady Thatcher had no say in the matter, although her departure opened the way to Tony Blair’s successive election victories.

The dilemma of succession

Succession remains a dilemma for a leader, and for those considered candidates as a successor. The issue has been around for nearly as long as stories have been written about leaders. We should at least be aware of the possibility of the ‘hero to zero’ process, as an earlier and over-generous evaluation of a leader is rewritten.

An example of this can be found in an article in Business Week in 2006 hailing the succession planning in Microsoft when Steve Ballmer replaced Bill Gates. Mr Ballmer’s departure this month [Oct 2013] was told in a different way.


Is Project Bing a strategic miscalculation or a leadership issue at Microsoft?

March 14, 2010

Global Issue analysed by Dr. Kamel Mnisri

What went wrong with Project Bing? When Microsoft tested Bing, as a decision aid it was positively received by customers as user-friendly and innovative. But when launched as a competitive search-engine to Google, its problems began to mount

Bing’s intention in the short term was to compete with Google, and increase its share in the online search market. However, a few months after it is launched, Bing has faced tough allegations and challenges. In addition to allegations of plagiarism and censoring Chinese language searches, Bing sits in the third position in the search engine market, behind Google and Yahoo.

Bing hits regulatory problems in Europe

Earlier this year [2010] Microsoft was forced to put a time-limit on Bing data to suit stricter European concepts of antitrust and privacy laws. A European advisory group criticised the manner in which search engines collect and retain data on individuals and the way the data was being used for advertising purposes. Faced with this challenge, Microsoft had accepted that it needed to act in accordance with regulators, and discard all data collected on users of its Bing search engine after six months. Microsoft reported that this decision on Bing’s data retention policy would have consequences on users around the world and not only in Europe.

What went wrong?

With Bing, Microsoft had made many surprising advances in search. The Bing team carried out an extensive analysis on the search-engine market from a customer’s perspective, and focused on underserved customers needs. But when Microsoft introduced Bing, analysts evaluated the search engine as having a long way to catch up with Google dominance. In a very small trial by Leaders We Deserve contributors, there was no obvious winning product for their most common search requirements.

The question is what went wrong with project Bing? Could we talk about strategic miscalculation or a leadership issue? In light of Google’s continued dominance in the search engine market, it appears difficult for Bing to rival Google. In the UK 75% of online searches go through Google UK for example, at a rate of 100 million queries a day. In addition, Google is an innovative company that puts much effort on improving search. Google, treating Microsoft as a respected competitor, had reportedly allocated a team of specialist engineers to battle Bing.

Overall, Bing is operating in a very complex and challenging environment where creativity could be applied. But, what are the options for Bing? How might it face the allegations and challenges of reaching its goal of become the number 1 search engine in the world?