By now, you’ve heard the news that longtime Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer is taking his song and dance show into retirement sometime within the next year. As the search for the next head honcho heats up, I’d like to suggest one unlikely candidate: University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban (or, at the very least, someone similar to Nick Saban in the tech world).
Maybe I’ve been watching too many old episodes of Friday Night Lights, or maybe I’m just a bit too excited about the return of college football (and the fact that my Ole Miss Rebels actually won Thursday night), but there’s a lot about this scenario that makes sense to me.
Now, sure, I’ll confess: There are some slight differences between leading an SEC football team that’s captured the national title three of the past four years and running an aging technology company with a $277 billion market cap. For instance, one’s a known winner and often ranked No. 1, whereas the other … hmm.
And yes, there are differences in the workforce: differences between innovative, engaged techies, free to operate in an encouraging, supportive environment, the best bringing out their best versus a team of hard-working, hard-hitting, rules-following, precision-focused college athletes.
But there’s the catch. There’s been no shortage of reports suggesting that Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT), throughout Ballmer’s 13-year tenure, has hardly been a place where the brightest technology workers can shine. Instead, it’s become a bloated bureaucratic backwater, a nightmare of a place to be if you had new ideas and wanted to see them make it to market. Innovation was squashed and entrenched interests, instead, protected. Tales abound of smart early developments like tablets and e-books being either ignored entirely or watered down to fit the Windows model.
While Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT)’s cultural troubles seem clear, it also faces recruitment challenges. The fact is talent matters, whether we’re talking about recruiting the best football players from high schools across the nation or recruiting the best programmers and computer engineers from across the world. You’ve got to be able to attract top talent, and then get the best out of them. And while I’m certainly not suggesting that the culture at Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) and the culture in the Alabama locker-room should be or could be identical, I do think Redmond can learn a thing or two from Tuscaloosa here.
To right its business and become a technology leader in, well, anything at all, Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) has to convince the smart folks that it’s the place to be — and then be that place. It has to find a way to attract tech stars to its ranks, stars that probably were destined for Google or Apple or Amazon.com. It’s not unlike Alabama persuading a stand-out receiver from Oklahoma to skip four years in Norman at OU and come to play in the SEC instead. You can’t do that without having leadership people believe in and trust, and a culture that supports and demands excellence. It takes time, yes, but once your recruiting edge is rock-solid, it’s hard for others to compete with you for talent.