Rumors aside, Microsoft's board of directors has done a good job of keeping the lid on its search for a CEO to replace Steve Ballmer, a public relations expert said.
"The key thing any board wants to do is to keep its deliberations private," said Peter LaMotte, an analyst with Levick, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic communications consultancy, talking about the public relations (PR) implications of a CEO search. "They want to do it all behind closed doors. And from what we can see, Microsoft's board is doing that really well."
In August, Ballmer abruptly announced that he would step down within the next 12 months. That same day, Microsoft said it had launched a search for its third-ever chief executive.
Since then, speculation about possible successors has waxed and waned, although all of the news reports that have named candidates attributed their information to anonymous sources. That's to be expected, said LaMotte. "A lack of hard information will create the rumor mill," he said.
What's important to understand, added LaMotte, is that there have been no confirmed leaks from within Microsoft's board, no attributable statements from anyone behind those closed doors. Names, such as Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally or former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, have been linked to the search only through anonymous sources described with phrases like "people familiar with the situation" or "familiar with his thinking." Additionally, no dark horse has surfaced: In other words, only people with connections to Microsoft, and thus easily speculated on, have been named.
And that's the smart way to play out a search for a CEO.
"The search process only looks bad when it leaks that someone was approached for the job and then decided not to take it," said LaMotte of the biggest PR blunder possible. "You never want to read that a company went after someone, but they turned them down."
In that way, a CEO search is similar to those conducted by a presidential candidate for a running mate, a university board of trustees for a new college president, or an NFL or NBA team, or high-profile university, for a new head football or basketball coach.
"Much like a presidential campaign, a board of directors must keep it close to the vest," said LaMotte. "Of course, people will still play the guessing game."
A suitor who spurns an offer creates more than hard feelings: It can damage the brand. A first-choice who declines the job offer makes it look like the company wasn't worthy, that the turn-around Microsoft's executing would be difficult, even impossible, or that the position was defined in unacceptable terms. All would reflect poorly on the company.
Some analysts believe that moves by Microsoft in the last year, including the strategic pivot toward devices and service, a corporate reorganization, the acquisition of Nokia's handset business, and a change in how it evaluates employees, will handcuff any new CEO. That has led to speculation that Microsoft may find it difficult to corral a top-notch candidate, either because of those already-made decisions or because those choices may signal that, with Ballmer a lame duck, co-founder and chairman Bill Gates is pulling the strings.
"Can they really attract a credible candidate knowing that Bill [Gates] may be calling all the shots?" wondered analyst Ben Thompson in an email two weeks ago, after Microsoft announced it had dumped its derided "stack ranking" practice of evaluating and rewarding workers.
But it will be critical for Microsoft's board to choose a new leader who agrees with the revamped strategy, said LaMotte. "Regardless who they pick, it's important that they find someone who continues the brand perception of the company," he said. "Imagine the problems if they bring in someone totally counter [to the brand]."
Microsoft's PR will also have to work quickly after the CEO selection is announced. "They should come out the gate with the messaging of the direction where they're going," said LaMotte, stressing that it will be important to portray the new CEO as someone who fits within Microsoft's corporate culture and will hew to Ballmer's string of major decisions. Any reports to the contrary will make it that much more difficult for Ballmer's replacement to win over employees and convince investors that the company is not in disarray.
Further change will be inevitable under a new leader, who will eventually remold Microsoft to better fit his or her vision of its future, but at the beginning, continuity is crucial. "If they select someone at odds with the brand, there will have to be a lot of effort going into new communication, a lot of new PR, maybe even new branding," said LaMotte.
And all of that would detract from the messaging Microsoft wants to drum into investors,' customers' and partners' minds, that it has a plan and will execute that plan.
"A CEO is a very defined and specific perception of what the brand is," said LaMotte. "The CEO is your brand."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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