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Ballmer: Don’t Restructure Microsoft, Renew it

Bad Relationships

Bad relationships don’t benefit anyone

Like many in the investor community and the public, I have read the news stories of impending “restructuring” at Microsoft with a mix of relief, anticipation, and impatience.  It’s like watching a friend, who has been languishing in a bad relationship, finally decide to end it.  I’m thrilled to hear that it’s going to happen and now’s the time to get on with it!  And similar to a broken relationship, I would expect that person to shed some of the bad habits they picked up over the years and either, reacquaint themselves with lapsed good habits or create new ones.  So it goes with Microsoft.

bloated fish

Bloated = Bad

The company is a bloated mess.  Just read one of the myriad articles decrying its decline.  It’s behemoth and unwieldy- slow off the block and even slower to respond to competition.  Microsoft doesn’t need a “restructuring,” it needs renewal.  As part of this process, whatever it is ultimately called, there will be layoffs or “RIF’s” (reduction in force) in the Microsoft parlance.  But lopping off a couple of waving tentacles is not sufficient- that just gives you wounded tentacles spewing blood or red ink everywhere. Ewwww.

There is a far better way to do this- and it’s going to sound radical but bear with me.  Voluntary RIF’s.  Yep- ask for volunteers to get off the boat and give them the life raft to do it in.  Microsoft is famous (and should be commended) for its historically generous layoff packages.  There is usually a substantial severance, medical premiums coverage, sometimes the acceleration of stock grant vests, and placement assistance.  Lately, the number of my former colleagues and friends privately hoping to be RIF’d has reached epic proportions.  So, Microsoft, I’ll borrow from another epic company- Just. Do. It.

Volunteers

Any volunteers?

Microsoft should implement a voluntary severance program.  It should be company-wide, across all levels, and should have a significant magnitude- I’d like to see 20,000- 30,000 spots.  Make the severance offer similar in scope to the existing packages:  1 month pay for every year of service (up to 12- 15 years), automatic vest of stock grants in the 2013 calendar year, insurance premiums through 2013, and job placement services.  But there is no carrot without a stick, so people who take this option can’t work for the company again for 2- 3 years.

Still reading?  Good!  I’ve mentioned this to several people who have said, “Microsoft will lose all its best people.”  That’s both true and it’s not.  Microsoft will loose a LOT of great talent, but that’s in part because it has an incredible pool of talent.  20+ years of technical and industry leadership has stocked the pond at Microsoft chock FULL of incredible talent, but the pool is painfully overcrowded and few, if any, of those people truly get to flex their muscle or stretch to their potential.

Some fish will jump to better bowls

Some fish will jump to better bowls

Further, because of the generous severance, over the next 6- 12 months, there would be a hot bed of innovation happening right here in the Northwest, where after a recovery period, Microsoft would be in a fantastic position to reacquire, invest in, or partner with the companies created from this watershed event.  If Microsoft handled this momentous event with tact and generosity- they would win on the brand front, on the people front, on the innovation front (long term) and give the remaining business and people a chance to breathe again.  Imagine being able to take a full, deep breath after years of recycled stagnant air- that’s what it would feel like for those who choose to remain.  Further, I believe this could be  a powerful boost to the local economy, if supported properly, and I would recommend Microsoft host events and provide logistical or tactical support to the newly created “expat” community.

Next objection, “But what if everyone from one group or product signs up to leave?”  Yes, yes, yes!  What if everyone in one group is so burned out, used up, out of faith, or out of ideas that they all want to leave?  That doesn’t sound like a tragedy- that sounds like an opportunity to find a meaningful, healthy way to trim the company’s sprawling scope.  “But what if it’s profitable?”  So what?!  Profitable today is not a growing business tomorrow- a dangerous myopia that Microsoft has clung to, far too many times.

“What about those left behind?”  Another good question!  There should be a reward for that choose to stay- give a 5% base raise to everyone who elects to stay.  In another post, I’ll share my ideas for how to completely overhaul Microsoft’s calcified and damaging review system- but suffice to say, it’s gotta go.  Also, not a single CVP slot should be backfilled for at least a year- there are over 100 (a completely mind-blowing number) at the company.  Being an executive (CVP or higher) at Microsoft is rarified air- it’s like being “made” in some kind of technology Mafia.  You have so much power within your organization and so much money as an individual, it is difficult for even the best and most grounded of them to have a good grip on reality or to make decisions beyond what serves their personal best interests.

This wouldn’t fix it all- there would still need to be thoughtful restructuring of remaining businesses and a rebalancing of people and priorities.  Microsoft would probably need 12 to 18 months to see this kind of radical change through and it wouldn’t be easy.  But it would be WORTH IT.

Steveb has to show new leadership

Steveb has to show new leadership

Lisa Brummel could oversee the greatest company transformation ever

Lisa Brummel could oversee the greatest company transformation ever

Finally, I’d say, this is Ballmer’s chance to restore his reputation and legacy to the company and to investors.  If Steve B. and Lisa B. (Chief People Officer) had the wherewithal to oversee this type of transformation, my view of them would be radically improved.  I’d induct them into the leadership hall of fame.  They would be viewed as visionaries within the tech community, business schools would write case-studies on their incredible transformation of the company, and the tech community in Seattle would be forever changed for the better.  The alternative?  Their successors do it and it’s ugly, messy, and takes years to recover from.

Microsoft will fare far better in the long run by taking brave and bold steps to unleash both its people and businesses to grow and thrive unencumbered by the hulking overhead of 100,000 souls.  Microsoft has an amazing history, and I desperately hope that its best years are still to come- but that will only be the case with courageous and visionary leadership.

As always- please share and comment!  I appreciate your readership and support!

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