Strictly Business: Businesses can burst in the bubble

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s decision to retire within 12 months has triggered a round of critiques about Microsoft’s successes and — mostly — about its failures since Ballmer took the helm from company co-founder Bill Gates in 2000.

Much of the analysis has focused on the Redmond-based company’s failure under Ballmer to stay in the forefront of innovation during an era when competitors delivered the iPhone, iPad, and Kindle, among other game-changing technologies. Employees talk of an insular “Redmond bubble,” where they’re discouraged even from using competitors’ products that could have enlightened them on how to stay in the game.

For every Microsoft success like its Xbox gaming system there were many more failures — the Zune portable media player that failed to compete with the iPod, the Surface tablet that has made a weak showing against the iPad, and a failure to offer software for mobile devices. And it was Ballmer who told USA Today in 2007 that the then newly released iPhone would attract few takers.

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” Ballmer said in that interview. “No chance.”

If that was a true reaction, rather than bombast to downplay a competitor’s products, it suggests a way of thinking that surely ate away at Microsoft’s ability to innovate. The company’s competitors know it: a Microsoft executive-level employee on the lookout for a new job informed me that amazon.com is hesitant to hire workers coming out of the flawed Microsoft culture. So what should be a major career accomplishment — a job in one of America’s most profitable corporations — has become something less than a résumé-builder for some employees.

It makes sense to think about Microsoft’s cultural corrosiveness before hiring someone leaving the Redmond bubble, says Scott Keeney, founder and CEO of the innovative Vancouver industrial laser manufacturer nLight. Microsoft has lots of great people among its about 100,000 employees, says Keeney, whose growing company employs 300 people. But there’s no doubting that employees are shaped by the corporate culture they work in.

Keeney’s spent considerable time thinking about keeping his company out in front as it develops new products for consumer and military uses. He’s an admirer of management guru Jim Collins, author of various books under the “Good to Great” template. Keeney says he can’t single out any well-known technology leader whom he admires: the best leaders, he says, keep a low profile rather than cultivating the “bombastic” persona of the industry’s famous figures.

Keeney weighs applicants by three measures: skill, will, and fit. No explanation is necessary about the need to evaluate skills. A person’s will is reflected in their personal drive and their willingness to learn, among other factors. “Fit” is the most challenging category — his is an industry filled with smart, driven people, and that often correlates with arrogance (a word frequently applied to Ballmer).

Keeney looks for humility: “people who recognize what they know, and what they don’t know.”

That’s something that’s impossible to learn in a bubble.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian’s business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com