The Race for the Next Microsoft CEO
Microsoft is at yet another crossroads of its nearly 40 year history, and it's now eagerly searching for its next CEO after current leader Steve Ballmer recently announced his retirement.

Ballmer Looks Back

Though he could still be at Microsoft for another year or so, Ballmer will retire as soon as his successor is named, but there are no obvious people in place for that job as far as we can tell. The Microsoft board has been examining some interesting outside candidates for the last few years, Ballmer told ZDNet in an in depth interview on the heels of his retirement announcement.

He didn't mention any names of course, and we ran a few names by immediately after Ballmer's announcement, but the race for the next Microsoft CEO is a deep field. Ballmer did say the company has been working with consultants Hendrick and Struggles on finding a successor, but stopped short of giving any details about the search.

The most revealing things Ballmer said in his ZDNet interview were about his perceived successes and failures. He was most proud of helping create intelligent personal computing, and about doing well for the shareholders. As for his biggest regret? One word. Vista. Ballmer noted he's still very focused on his job right now, and he said he has no immediate plans for what he'll do when he finally does ride off the Microsoft ranch.

Ballmer said Bill Gates didn't try to persuade him to stay or go, and that he had arrived at his decision to retire all by himself.

Racing to be Microsoft's Next CEO

It's fun putting together lists of potential candidates, but we don't think the next Microsft CEO will come from Apple, Google or Facebook. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer would certainly be a fun pick, but also quite a surprise. One popular name getting the go around is Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, a former Microsoft employee. Nokia, of course, partnered with Microsoft on the Windows Phone campaign, and he may even be able to help push through a Microsoft buy of Nokia that has long been rumored.

Most of the best candidates are either current Microsoft employees or former employees that have gone on to lead other companies like Paul Maritz, CEO of Pivotal. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, is an intriguing candidate as well, and he was even once on the Microsoft board.

Of the internal candidates, we like Tony Bates who came over in the Skype buy, and Satya Nadell, Microsoft president of server and tools business. Qi Lu, Julie Larson-Green, Kirill Tatarinov, Kevin Turner and Eric Rudder are also high ranking Microsoft officials who would likely make a short list of internal candidates.

Obviously, Ballmer came from within the company having worked there since the Carter administration, so Microsoft may indeed be leaning more that way. It's really a toss up for us. We can see why it might go for the steady hand of an experienced internal candidate, but also think the most good could come from an outsider.

While Ballmer might not have been the most popular guy to have been in place at Microsoft, the company is sitting on a mountain of cash, and still has a chance to really nail Office 365 and even Windows Phone. Additionally, a year from now we'll have even more feedback on Windows 8 (and the forthcoming 8.1 update), and so whoever takes over will have a much better idea of how to improve it even more.

This is a company that thinks long term, and while many may be clamoring for Bill Gates to make his triumphant return, Microsoft's next phase will not be about its leadership, but what it can do to advance those long term goals of its customers.

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