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Directors & Board Magazine: Bill George On Transitioning A Board's Makeup

Building a great board is a most difficult task. It takes a great deal of time on the part of the board members and the CEO. But it is the key to a strong system of governance. Read my full article from Directors & Boards magazine on transitioning a board's makeup here. Your feedback is welcome. 

Outsmart The Activists!

The “activist hedge fund” is a new breed of shareholder that has emerged in the 21st century, leading to increased pressure on corporate executives and boards through the strategy of taking on more debt and paying out more to shareholders. Because these activist shareholders are generally seeing positive returns and institutional investors are following their lead, it’s clear hedge fund activism is here to stay. Rather than resist the activist shareholder, CEOs and boards must adapt to activist interventions and use them to improve their organizations.

In a new article for Harvard Business Review, Jay Lorsch and I explore the hedge fund activism trend and identify six ways to fend off activist challenges drawing from real examples of companies including PepsiCo, Target, Novartis, Whole Foods, and P&G:

  1. Have a clear strategic focus and stick to it.
  2. Analyze your business as an activist would.
  3. Have your external advisers lined up in advance and familiar with your company.
  4. Build board chemistry.
  5. Perform in the short run against declared goals.
  6. Don’t dismiss activist ideas out of hand.

Read the full blog here. Your feedback is welcome.

GM’s Barra Leads from the Front

Put yourself in Mary Barra’s shoes: After 33 years with the company, you have been CEO of General Motors (GM) for just two weeks – the first operating executive in 30 years to be CEO and the first female. You are determined to transform the moribund GM culture that led the company into bankruptcy by focusing on superior vehicles that meet your customers’ needs with design, quality, and most of all, safety.

Then you learn that the company has a major safety problem with ignition switches on the Chevrolet Cobalt that has caused 12 deaths, and you must recall 1.6 million vehicles. Your investigation uncovers that GM employees have known about this for 12 years but the problem was never surfaced – all to save $1 per car.

You recognize immediately the potential consequences: angry customers, negative publicity, and an array of liability suits, Congressional investigations, and significant financial impact. You recall how Toyota’s quality problems impacted its reputation and cost the company more than $1 billion.

You know there is likely much more looming below the surface. Amid this uncertainty you are determined to be open and honest with your customers and the general public, yet you don’t have all the facts. How can you go public without complete answers and solutions?

The pre-bankruptcy GM often had similar problems but its leaders refused to face reality. Mary Barra is a very different kind of CEO: she is determined to lead GM into a new era that focuses on customers first and sets new standards of transparency in providing the safest, highest quality vehicles. I had the privilege of getting to know her last summer when she attended my Harvard Business School course, “Leading Global Businesses” while she was GM’s chief of worldwide product development.

Thus far, Barra has performed remarkably well under the mounting pressure. She has stepped forward and acknowledged the problems, and taken full responsibility for them. Unlike the old GM, she isn’t hiding behind lawyers and PR specialists. Rather, she has spoken directly to GM’s customers and apologized for what has happened, expressing empathy by admitting that “something went very wrong … and terrible things happened.”

When Congressional hearings begin on April 1, Barra isn’t sending a subordinate: she will testify herself. She has promised to release findings of an internal investigation examining the problem’s root causes and why no action was taken. “Our overriding goal is to be transparent,” Barra said.

Barra is using this crisis to transform the old GM culture. In early March, she wrote to employees: “Our company’s reputation won’t be determined by the recall itself, but by how we address the problem going forward … What is important is taking great care of our customers and showing that it really is a new day at GM.”

To signal her determination to change GM’s culture, she appointed a new chief of global vehicle safety. She has assigned 50 employees to GM’s technical center to handle customer inquiries about safety and is holding daily meetings to oversee the recall. Using decades of experience in designing GM’s vehicles, she is focusing on understanding how the defect occurred and why it took over a decade to bring it to the public’s attention.

With so many problems like GM’s surfacing in the past decade, the American public has lost trust and confidence in the integrity and transparency of corporate leaders. In the automobile industry alone, the public still has raw memories of Ford’s Jacques Nasser blaming Firestone tires for the rollovers of Ford Explorers that caused 273 deaths, and denials of Toyota and Audi about problems with their vehicles.

It takes a long time to regain consumer confidence. By being open and transparent about GM’s problems, Barra has aligned herself with her customers and ameliorated public outrage. Acknowledging there is no quick-fix for these problems, Barra said “We have apologized, but that is only one step in the journey to resolve this … We have much more work ahead of us.” To reinforce her commitment, she announced the recall of 1.7 million newer GM vehicles suspected of carrying faulty airbags.

Barra recognizes regaining the trust of GM’s customers is far more important than the billions of dollars in lawsuits and fines that GM may incur. She weathered decades of “financial engineers” in the CEO’s chair who focused on short-term profit instead of building great products. She has been at GM long enough to know how difficult it will be to change GM’s entrenched culture. To change GM’s culture from its inward-looking, short-term focus, she has to be the role model for all employees of how to treat customers, especially during a crisis.

Mary Barra recognizes that “a burning platform” like this one offers a golden opportunity to convert GM’s culture permanently into a passionate focus on vehicles that make customers’ transportation safer and more enjoyable. Demonstrating her visionary approach to leading GM, Barra says, “We will be better because of this tragic situation, if we seize the opportunity.”

She has the leadership, wisdom, and commitment to do just that.

WSJ: Free Advice for Satya Nadella

Another well-done Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Feintzeig on Microsoft CEO, February 4, 2014:

So, you’re the new CEO of Microsoft: a sprawling tech company that critics say missed the mobile and social revolutions, losing crucial market share to Google and Apple. And your two predecessors—one of whom is Bill Gates—are hovering over your shoulder.

Where to start? Former executives and management gurus have a few ideas for incoming chief Satya Nadella.

Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, said departing CEO Steve Ballmer, who will now sit on the board, represents Nadella’s greatest challenge.

“I think that’s the single biggest problem with respect to change. [Nadella’s] got to be able to manage a very, very strong personality who’s just stepped aside, who’s even on record [saying] he wish he could have been the one to make the changes,” Mr. Finkelstein said.

“Be aware that anything you’re going to do, it’s almost like there’s an implicit veto by Ballmer,” he said. “I think Ballmer is the third rail in any sort of change effort.”

Winning over Microsoft’s board members should be another priority for Nadella. “They’re beholden very much to Ballmer and Gates,” Mr. Finkelstein said.

He recommends Nadella focus his energy on gaining allies internally and demonstrating his own track record as CEO for a year or two before he makes any big changes.

“With things going in the right direction, you gain more power,” he said.

Michael Useem, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school, disagrees. As a Microsoft veteran, Nadella needs to move fast, he said. New executives typically have a honeymoon period of 90 to 100 days to get to know the organization and develop their approach. But Nadella should only take 50 days to get up to speed.

“He knows the personalities. He knows the issues. He knows where value’s being created and destroyed and he knows where are all the skeletons are,” he said. “He will not be allowed to have that luxury of a full year to take charge.”

Nilofer Merchant, a Silicon-valley based former technology executive who now advises companies like Yahoo and Logitech, said Nadella should lead by collaboration.

“What’s going to happen in the next 90 days is people throughout the organization and the industry are going to come to him with their proverbial ball of problems and ask him to solve that problem,” she said. “He’s got to not buy into that framework, because his job is to figure out how to get other people to solve problems.”

“So instead of telling, controlling, directing, he’s got to…figure out how to get them to know how to solve the problems themselves,” she said. “It’s all about getting the team at Microsoft to understand what to do, not that he tells everyone what to do.”

And if Nadella wants to take cues from other tech companies, he should look to IBM, not HP, she said. The latter company’s chief, Meg Whitman, is intent on protecting core businesses, Ms. Merchant said, while IBM has devoted itself to reinvention every few years.

William George, the former chief executive of medical device company Medtronic Inc. and a professor at Harvard Business School, said Nadella’s first course of action must be to establish a team that’s his own. Veterans – including those who wanted the job Nadella won – have to make a choice, he said.

“They’re either going to be loyal and committed to Nadella or they should move on,” he said.

Nadella should promote his internal favorites or bring in outside talent to fill out his inner circle. Then he has to turn his sights to the board of directors.

“The next step is to work with John Thompson,” the new chairman, George said. “Nadella’s got to work with him to upgrade the board. They need a newer board, a fresher board. [They] need to bring in sitting CEOs, recently retired CEOs, to add wisdom and insight.”

After a lengthy and public search process, Nadella also has to set forth his vision for the business more quickly than most.

He should lay out his full strategic plan in about six months  – or at longest, a year – George said. If Nadella wants to make dramatic changes, it will take five to seven years to make that transformation. And George, for one, hopes Nadella thinks big.

“They really have to go from becoming the fast follower to being a leader in innovation,” he said of Microsoft. “That’s where I think the vision should be.”

WSJ: How Microsoft’s Global Search Ended at Home

Great Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Feintzeig, February 4, 2014:

With the announcement of Satya Nadella as its new chief executiveMicrosoft’s global search for a new leader ended in its own backyard.

During the five month long search, the board was said to have courted candidates including Ford Motor Co. chief Alan Mulally and former Nokia Corp. leader Stephen Elop before tapping Nadella, a popular executive who started at Microsoft in 1992 and leads the division that makes technology to run corporate computer servers and other back-end technology.

When Nadella’s predecessor, Steve Ballmer, announced he was stepping down last year, he told The Wall Street Journal that the company needed profound changes, and he was not the executive to make them. Although companies often go outside for transformative leaders, by picking Nadella, board members are signaling that they believe an insider is up to the job.

More often than not, a company’s next CEO is already working there. In 2012, the last full year for which data is available, 73% of S&P 500 companies with outgoing CEOs selected an internal candidate as successor. This continued a slight downward trend – as recently as 2008, according to the research, 83% of companies chose to promote from within.

A high-profile search process is “not a very healthy time” for a company, said William George, a management professor at Harvard Business School and former chief executive of medical device company Medtronic Inc. Morale problems can spring up as workers grow uneasy about where their employer is headed; an internal pick, said George, may reassure staff.

Nonethless, the search process suggests that Microsoft failed to effectively plan for Ballmer’s successor, management experts said. The former CEO held his post for 14 years–plenty of time to have a replacement groomed and ready, George said.

Succession planning should start as soon as a chief executive starts his or her job, with three or four potential candidates on the board’s radar, according to Michael Useem, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school. The practice gives board members ample time to know the up-and comers, he said. Granted, Microsoft isn’t alone in having thin succession plans, and the company’s reorganization last year left it unclear who, exactly, was Ballmer’s number two.

And companies should move fast if they have internal favorites, George added.

“If you liked internal candidates, choose them. You know the internal candidates and you should step up to it,” he said.

Microsoft would not comment on the specifics of the search, but spokesman Peter Wootton said “it’s not uncommon for a search of this magnitude to require four to six months.”

For now, Microsoft must “build up the bona fides” of Nadella and clearly explain its choice, said Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business and a corporate communications expert who’s worked with companies like Novartis and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Leaders should also note that the company needed to proceed carefully at a crucial time in the history of the business.

“Externally, it’s going to be a very tough sell. I think people are going, ‘This a very disappointing, boring, ho hum announcement,’” he said.

 

McKinsey Interview on Rethinking Capitalism

Here is my video from the McKinsey website on the need for long-term investing in order to create superior value for their customers and why boards of directors must be prepared to stand up to activist investors urging short-term actions.

A Solution to Our "Manufactured" Crisis

Unlike our counterparts in Southern Europe, the United States is blessed to have a fairly steady economy these days. While economic growth is not as robust as it has been in years past, it is at least solid and jobs are steadily returning in the private sector. Financial markets reflect the solid outlook for leading U.S. industries like information technology, health care, energy, automobiles, and basic manufacturing industries. The U.S. has become the world's leading energy producer, helping to ameliorate our long-standing dependence on foreign oil that has led to unfavorable trade balances. Even the enormous government deficits of the last decade are starting to decline, thanks in part to the involuntary sequestration of spending.

A Manufactured Crisis with No Easy Way Out

So why are we flirting with a historic default on U.S. government bonds that will harm the U.S. credit and credibility for decades to come? Simply stated, our political leaders have manufactured a crisis. They know they are playing with fire, but no one seems to know how to put it out.

At this weekend's meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, world financial leaders like Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, and Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, were almost apoplectic in their dire warnings about the impact of a U.S. default on the global economy. Even the threat of a default risks “massive disruption the world over,” said Lagarde on Sunday. U.S. leaders like Jacob Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, and Jamie Dimon, chair and CEO of JP Morgan, echoed similar concerns but offered no viable solutions.

In the past two years many U.S. political leaders seemed to enjoy beating up on the Europeans for the fiscal crisis in Greece that threatened to spread to Italy, Spain and Portugal. While Germany's Angela Merkel steadily worked to solve the problems through austerity and restraint, U.S. leaders and commentators like Paul Krugman took potshots at the Germans for not bailing out the Greeks with greater deficits and expanded borrowing.

The big difference here is that Greece's fiscal crisis is real, while the U.S. problems are entirely the result of a dysfunctional political system. The blame can be squarely placed on leaders who fail to put their country ahead of personal political gain. Sadly, there is no easy way to overcome this political crisis, as the sides are so polarized. They are likely to remain so due to the gerrymandered Congressional districts that created the split in the first place.

I feel confident we will find a way to muddle through the artificial debt ceiling, even if President Obama has to violate the law to do so, but the damage being done will stay with us for years to come. The Chinese and other big lenders will eventually find alternative currencies or a reserve currency basket where they can park their funds. Interest rates will rise, giving an upward nudge to inflation.

But what about Washington? When a power vacuum is created in a democracy like ours, other forces take over. Under the leadership of Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Fed has been offsetting the lack of fiscal policy during the last four years by making ever greater uses of monetary tools like quantitative easing. Bernanke's successor, vice chair Janet Yellen, is likely to continue these policies until Congress and the administration get their respective acts together, which could be a long time.

A Solution for this Manufactured Crisis: "Think Local"

The solution, I predict, is that states and municipalities will steadily assume more power. As federal entitlement programs assume an ever-larger share of the federal budget, they will squeeze out spending for most domestic programs. At present no one in Washington seems to have the political will to solve the looming fiscal crises of Social Security, which could actual be resolved quite easily, and Medicare/Medicaid, which will become an increasing sinkhole for funds for the foreseeable future until we get serious about healthcare costs.

This puts the burden for quality of life on the backs of the governors and big city mayors. Given the diversity of the country across 50 states, this may be a good thing. Locally-elected officials are that much closer to the people who vote for them and thus more responsive to their needs. By returning power to states and municipalities, we empower local people and their elected leaders to tailor solutions to their local problems.

Health care and education are essentially local issues. The complexities of health care and education, coupled with the growing diversity of our states, are so great that they defy "one-size-fits-all" national solutions. Ultimately, local leaders will come up with sounder, more practical solutions that fit the needs of their unique populations. They will be more effective at engaging the business community and non-profit organizations to partner with them in seeking these solutions. Instead of spending money and time lobbying in DC for little gain, business and non-profit leaders can focus on making things work locally and on contributing their own resources to enhance quality of life for their employees, dependents and communities.

My bottom line: because of the dysfunctions in the federal government and the growing diversity of the country, we are witnessing nothing less than a historic shift of power to states and municipalities. In the end this will prove healthy for our country as we generate higher levels of commitment and collaboration among the government, business and non-profit leaders that lead to higher quality of life for all Americans.

Bill George Has Been Named Top Overall Business Leader of Twin Cities for Past 20 Years

Medtronic’s former Chairman and CEO Bill George has been named the “Top Overall Business Leader” of the past twenty years by Twin Cities Business Magazine. George is currently Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, where he has spent the past ten years teaching leadership to executives and MBAs. During this period he has written four best-selling books, including True North, and has been an active commentator on television and in print on business leadership. He currently serves on the boards of directors of the Mayo Clinic, ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs, and previously on the boards of Target and Novartis. The Twin Cities Business article notes, “Medtronic’s former CEO and current chairman is perhaps the individual most quoted by other corporate leaders, certainly in the Twin Cities, on effective leadership. Boiled to an essence, his message is “Be who you are,” and he is. Self-effacement and candor are primary virtues in the George canon. He says, “What gives me the most satisfaction from my years (at Medtronic) is that we went from restoring 300,000 people a year to good health to restoring 10 million. That, to me, is the measure of the good you have done.”

Full text of article: http://tcbmag.com/Twin-Cities-Business-20th-Anniversary/Top-Three-Businesspeople/Best-Overall-Business-Leader-Bill-George

Activists Seek Short-Term Gain, Not Long-Term Value

From NYTimes DealBook, published August 26, 2013.

Activist investors are making waves in the stock market, but their game has changed. Instead of taking on sluggish, poorly managed businesses, they want to restructure many of the world’s most profitable, best-managed companies. Their targets — PepsiCo, Apple, TargetWhole FoodsProcter & Gamble, Kraft and Dell — represent the gold standard of corporate governance. These companies are run by highly engaged, professional leaders. So why are activists like Carl C. Icahn, William A. Ackman, Nelson Peltz and Ron Burkle taking aim at them?

While activists often cloak their demands in the language of long-term actions, their real goal is a short-term bump in the stock price. They lobby publicly for significant structural changes, hoping to drive up the share price and book quick profits. Then they bail out, leaving corporate management to clean up the mess. Far from shaping up these companies, the activists’ pressure for financial engineering only distracts management from focusing on long-term global competitiveness.

These activists have a keen sense of timing, buying up shares when the stock is down because of near-term events. There is nothing wrong with that. Warren E. Buffett does the same. The difference is that Mr. Buffett invests for the long term in companies like Coca-ColaWells Fargo and I.B.M. He says his ideal holding period is “forever,” and he leaves management alone to focus on results.

A relevant example is Mr. Peltz’s demands to restructure PepsiCo. After forcing the spinoff of Kraft’s North American business into a company called Mondelez, Mr. Peltz’s Trian Partners is left holding 3 percent of a company that cannot compete with global leaders like Nestlé and Unilever. So Mr. Peltz wants PepsiCo to buy Mondelez and then split into two companies: beverages and snacks, including Mondelez. This financial engineering makes no sense. Rather, it demonstrates Mr. Peltz’s lack of understanding of what is required to run successful global enterprises.

PepsiCo’s results demonstrate the validity of the “performance with purpose” strategy of its chief executive, Indra K. Nooyi. It recently reported its sixth consecutive quarter of solid organic revenue growth as core earnings per share grew 17 percent and gross margins expanded. Its global portfolio of snacks, beverages and healthy foods has high co-purchase and co-consumption levels, generating $1 billion a year in scale benefits. Ms. Nooyi uses cash flow from traditional beverages to finance investments and growth in emerging markets, innovation and healthy brands, which now account for 20 percent of PepsiCo’s revenue. PepsiCo’s stock is up about 25 percent over the last two years, compared with 11 percent for its archrival, Coca-Cola.

Mr. Peltz is not the only activist going after healthy companies. Here are some other examples:

Whole Foods

Mr. Burkle moved in on Whole Foods when its stock was at its 2009 low of $4, having fallen from $39. Whole Foods’ leadership ignored Mr. Burkle’s pressure, stayed true to its mission and strategy, merged with Wild Oats and invested in deluxe new stores while expanding sales at stores open more than a year. Today its stock is above $50 and has traded above $55.

Target

In 2009, Mr. Ackman tried to pressure Target to break up its integrated portfolio of retail, real estate and credit card holdings, mimicking Eddie Lampert’s disastrous strategy at Sears. Target fought back, won 80 percent of shareholder votes in a proxy fight over Mr. Ackman’s proposed board slate and focused on its long-term strategy to compete with Wal-Mart Stores. Since then, Target’s stock is up 64 percent.

J.C. Penney

Mr. Ackman next bought into J.C. Penney with a stake that now amounts to about 18 percent and hired Ron Johnson from Apple as chief executive. They hastily undertook a complete remake, abandoning traditional customers and losing 30 percent of revenue. When Myron E. Ullman, the former chief executive who was brought back, tried to stabilize the company, Mr. Ackman publicly attacked the board. Finally, the board forced Mr. Ackman to resign, leaving him with an estimated $500 million in losses. To his credit, Mr. Ackman is acknowledging his mistakes.

Procter & Gamble

Mr. Ackman also went after venerable Procter & Gamble and its chief executive, Bob McDonald, proposing questionable short-term actions to drive up the stock price. He personally attacked Mr. McDonald even as the company posted two strong quarters. Under pressure, the board decided to replace Mr. McDonald with his predecessor, A.G. Lafley. Meanwhile, P.&G. continues to lose ground globally to its archrival, Unilever.

Dell

Michael S. Dell proposed taking private the company he founded at a 40 percent premium so he could operate it without stock market scrutiny. Hoping to squeeze $1 to $2 more a share out of Mr. Dell, Mr. Icahn bought up Dell stock and proposed his own financial structure. Now the company is in limbo, posting declining results while the ownership struggle continues.

Chief executives are responsible for building their companies for the long term, while delivering near-term results. When economic conditions and market changes put pressure on quarterly results, it takes wise and steady leadership at the top to avoid the pitfalls of cutting investments to achieve quarterly targets. Chief executives who “borrow from tomorrow” to meet today’s numbers inevitably jeopardize the future of their companies. For poignant examples, review the histories of Hewlett-PackardGeneral Motors, Sears and Kodak.

The best chief executives — including Alan R. Mulally of Ford, Paul Polman of Unilever and Ms. Nooyi of PepsiCo — anticipate short-term challenges but don’t react to them by sacrificing long-term strategies. They know how to compete globally by creating sustainable value for customers and their shareholders.

In attacking well-run companies, activists are overplaying their hand. The only way to sustain growth in shareholder value is by creating competitive advantage to provide superior value for your customers. Corporate leaders should stay laser-focused on this goal.

 

Microsoft Ballmer’s Retirement Highlights Challenges of Sustaining Tech Success

Steve Ballmer’s announcement today that he will retire as Microsoft’s CEO after 14 years at the helm highlights the challenges high technology companies have in sustaining their success. Ballmer’s tenure was marred because he permitted Microsoft’s Office and Windows businesses to dominate the company. Meanwhile, opportunities in smart phones, search, mobile applications, social media, and on-line videos were ceded to emerging companies from Google to Blackberry, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (now part of Google). Led by the return of Bill Gates’ old nemesis, Steve Jobs, Apple has far surpassed Microsoft in every category except PC software. Even there, Jobs was able to finesse Microsoft in creating the iPad that has contributed to the steady decline of the PC business.

To his credit, Ballmer invested heavily in R&D – over $10 billion in the past year – but Microsoft has little to show for it. Like many of its high tech counterparts – Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Nokia, Dell, Blackberry, Kodak and Motorola, to name a few – Microsoft has been unable to overcome the dominance of its core business. Thus, it is following a similar path to IBM with mainframe computers in the 1980s. Most likely the crowning blow for Microsoft’s founder-dominated board was the fiasco with Windows 8, its mainstream product update.

Microsoft’s problem is not a technology problem but an organizational one. It is the classic issue addressed by my HBS colleague Clay Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma. The dominant business that generates most of the profits gets the bulk of the resources and attracts the best people in the company. Meanwhile, the dominant group squeezes resources for emerging businesses, especially when funds are tight, and focuses its R&D on replacement products, not true innovation. Similar things happened in the pharmaceutical industry which, with the exception of Novartis and J&J, missed the biotech, med tech, and generic revolutions.

We had a similar problem at Medtronic with the dominance of our cardiac rhythm business, made up of pacemakers and defibrillators, which used to account for 80% of revenues and 90% of profits. Seeing the eventual saturation of that market, we used its cash flow to spend heavily to build a series of medical technology businesses through internal ventures and acquisitions. These include neurological disease, spinal disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, along with emerging businesses in otolaryngology and urology. Today the latter businesses account for more than 60% of Medtronic’s revenues and make up the bulk of its growth.

Ballmer contributed to Microsoft’s innovation problem by personally dominating its organization, not letting anyone have sufficient authority to counteract the power of the mainstream business. The consequence is that after 14 years – which is four years too long for a high tech CEO to be at the helm – Ballmer is leaving Microsoft with no successor in sight. Shame on the Microsoft board for letting this happen.

So the company is turning to Heidrick and Struggles to propose a successor. Let’s hope the Microsoft board is wiser in the selection process than the Hewlett-Packard board, which four times unsuccessfully went outside its ranks for a new CEO, yet never found a leader who could restore the innovative, egalitarian culture of H-P’s glory days. IBM’s approach should be a role model: it recruited Lou Gerstner, who had no computer background but was a superb strategist and leader, to get the company back on track. Gerstner wisely groomed Sam Palmisano as his successor, turning over the reins after only eight years. In the past decade Palmisano remade IBM into a highly successful enterprise systems and solutions company and groomed an internal successor, Ginny Rometty, to carry on the IBM success story.

Fortunately for Microsoft’s board, there are excellent candidates who could rebuild its innovative spirit.  Three in particular come to mind: Jeff Bezos, CEO of Seattle-based Amazon; Cheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook; and John Donahoe, CEO of eBay. It is unlikely Bezos would make the shift, but Sandberg might welcome the opportunity to become CEO rather than COO. Donahoe is less well known, but has done a superb job in remaking eBay after taking over a declining franchise from former CEO Meg Whitman. 

At this writing Microsoft’s future is very much in doubt. For the sake of America’s dominant position in the global high tech field, let’s hope its board goes the route of IBM and not H-P. Doing so will require all the wisdom of Bill Gates and his fellow board members.