What Microsoft needs from its next CIO

What Microsoft needs from its next CIO

Most enterprises don't trot out their CIOs as corporate spokespersons, but Microsoft can't afford to keep the brains behind its technology strategy behind the curtain.

Stuart Scott should have been a role model for IT professionals. Instead he may have just taken the industry's highest-profile fall from grace.

Microsoft will probably never divulge the reasons it fired Scott, its CIO since late 2005, unless he bothers to sue them for wrongful dismissal. Given that he was already on a leave of absence while an investigation was being conducted, that doesn't seem very likely. The vague allusions to violating corporate policies is meaningless, and hopefully represents an isolated case at Microsoft. Scott's sudden departure, however, puts a lot of pressure on the company to find a successor whose achievements will eclipse the notoriety it gained by dismissing him.

Of course, being in charge of technology leadership at the world's largest software firm would be daunting enough, but Microsoft has spent the last several years trying to pitch corporate enterprises on the idea of transforming themselves into a "people-ready business." It's a vision fleshed out on the company Web site with such cliched platitudes as "A people-ready business believes its people are the ultimate drivers of business success." When a member of Microsoft's senior leadership team becomes an obvious liability to its own supposedly people-ready business, its credibility is obviously tarnished.

Microsoft has the opportunity with Scott's replacement to show its vast audience how someone with unparalleled IT resources can galvanize an organization with a reputation for sluggishness and so-so operational execution (like getting products released on time) into something other companies should emulate. Yes, there's a danger in this strategy: If Microsoft's next CIO goes on a speaking tour touting the "Redmond way," it could alienate other CIOs or IT managers who are scraping their budget dollars to hold their infrastructure together. And if he or she can't show how successful you can be at Microsoft, where can any other CIO expect to be successful?

Then again, think of a talk-show host like Oprah Winfrey, who can afford the best fitness trainers and personal chefs, but who continues to battle weight issues her entire life. Think of stories (after his death) about Canada's wealthiest man, Kenneth Thompson, and tales of his bargain-hunting at the grocery store. What we remember about the great and powerful are not just what separates them from us but what we have in common with them. Microsoft's next CIO could, by discussing openly his or her biggest obstacles and incremental successes, bring the firm's image down to a level that engenders its customers' empathy.

Most enterprises don't trot out their CIOs as corporate spokespersons, but Microsoft can't afford to keep the brains behind its technology strategy behind the curtain. As it tries to present itself as a trusted advisor for managing and transitioning outdated business processes into better ones, it needs a representative that can appeal directly to the CIO's peer group. Unfortunately, Stuart Scott has embarrassed the company, and it made an example of him. Now it needs to make an example of someone else that others will be inspired to follow.

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