Category Archives: Leadership

Steve Ballmer and the meaning of money

I am Objectivist and fan of Ayn Rand’s writings.  One of the great heroes in her books is a man Francisco d’Anconia.  He gives a speech that makes Michael Douglas in Wall Street seem impish in comparison.  dAnconia not only explains why profit is great, but the underlying source of its greatness.  One of the exciting things in my life is finding great heroes like d’Anconia that exist in real life, not just books or movies.  My boss Steve Ballmer is one of those gems.

My guess is that outside the sphere of business and technology, most people don’t know the man by name.  If you ask someone in the world of business who he is, they’re likely to tell you he’s served as the CEO of Microsoft during the time the company’s stock has been flat.  In the technology industry, he is pilloried.  His wikipedia article while silent on his accomplishments inside Microsoft besides passively profiting from its stock, hastens to point out:

Steve Ballmer has been known to be very passionate in expressing his enthusiasm. [...] His wild screaming and dancing on stage at an employees convention was caught on a widely-circulated video known as “Dance Monkeyboy.” A few days later at a developers’ conference, a sweat-soaked Ballmer repeatedly chanted “developers” at least 14 times in front of the bemused gathering.

Despite what the business and technology communities might have you believe, Ballmer is not a crazed lunatic nor has he sat idle at the controls driving Microsoft into the depths of irrelevance.

Under his tenure as CEO Microsoft has tripled its revenue from $19 billion to $60 billion.  Operating income has doubled from $10 billion to $22 billion.  Net-income has more than doubled from $7.7 billion to $17.6 billion.  All of this has occurred amidst a crippling persecution by the United Stated Department of Justice and European Union on antitrust charges.  During this same time, the company has endured the commoditization of large swaths of the software industry at the hands of the open source software movement.  The company went from being virtually unused at enterprise scale, lagging far behind Oracle and Sun Microsystems, to the dominant player.

All of that is fantastic.  But my favorite thing about Ballmer isn’t that he guided the company to achieve these fantastic results, but that he takes pride in it and wants you to be just as proud.  I feel a bit privileged every year as an employee at Microsoft to get to attend our company meeting where 30,000 of us pack into a stadium.  It’s impossible to describe just what a spectacle that is.   The best I can say is that it’s kind of like a giant high school pep rally, except with a bunch of wealthy nerds.

Without fail Ballmer comes out at the end of every meeting to loud music, cheering, applause and meets it with the sort of high fives and tenacity that you might expect from a basketball player not a CEO.

He’s so exasperated after running around the floor of the stadium that he has to stop any catch his breath for a moment.  After he caught his breath, I listened as he started in:

I have to say a couple things.  You know everybody likes to focus on the thing they consider the most important thing that they hear and I sit backstage the whole meeting just listening, listening.  What do people really love?  What do they applaud for?

And everybody’s got their own thing.  You mention their group they go nuts.  You show them their product, they go nuts.  You mention [the Entertainment Devices Division] went from profitable to unprofitable, and they go super nuts.

But the one thing that actually makes me go most nuts barely even got a ripple.

My friend over here Kevin Turner, he put up a slide that showed our growth in revenue and our growth in profit.  And I admit that the numbers are so big and so crazy that they’re so hard to understand.  There’s no reason people should go crazy about them.

Yes, I want to remind you how impressive your work is.  60 billion dollars in revenue.  22 billion dollars in pre-tax operating income.

There is no company on the whole planet, on the whole planet!  — that doesn’t sell oil — [laughs] –there’s a foot note–there’s no company on the whole planet now that makes 22 billion.  It’s Exxon and it’s the world’s oil companies and it’s us.

And the growth that we posted in profit, going on 4 billions dollars in one year.  You can say those are just numbers and you can’t relate to them, and maybe you never should.  But you should be able to take the pride in knowing your work is having big broad impact and it’s being valued by people around the globe–valued by people aorund the globe.

And to all of you, to the most amazing success in the history of world business, for that I want to say thank you, give yourselves a round of applause.

I sat listening to him, as a smile broke across my face.  I am proud to have this man as my boss.  And I feel like I am witnessing a part of history that only the 30,000 people around me will get to see.  A record level of success being achieved in business, and observed for what it is by the man without guilt or shame.

Apprentice, episode 4

I just finished watching this week’s show.  It looks like this year is shapping up to be a reverse of last year, where now several women get peeled off the team early on.  I am pretty sure they’ll be back in the boardroom next week too, because it doesn’t look like they have any real energy on their team.

One thing that was really disappointing this week is that so many of the people on the team kept bashing the leader.  I mean it’s great if you can spot weaknesses, but I didn’t see many of them doing something to step up themselves and fix the situation–they were content to just complain about it.  I don’t think they showed one clip of the Mosaic team having this kind of infighting.  They just focused on the task and got it done.

I will say I was pretty impressed both of the teams set up an entire restaurant in a single day.  It wasn’t really clear from the footage how they chose their dishes and figured out the preparation.  I am almost wondering if they had a preselected chef who figured that part out.

Apprentice, episode 1

So I just finished watching the first episode in the new Apprentice season.  I remember laughing at all the self-promotion jabs Trump got in in the first season, and just enjoying them as more humor than anything bording on serious.  I noticed in the new season they’ll do these weird scenes where it cuts in on him talking to someone apparently important, and then telling them he had to go.  Is it just me or was this overly corny!?

The other thing I thought was weird is how the participants actually went about solving the problem.  The project managers don’t seem like they could possibly be college graduates, much less MBAs.  Maybe they just cut out footage, but it looks like both teams jumped into brainstorming mode right away before thinking about what qualities success would entail.  They also had all nine people on their team brainstorming, even though some of them could have been doing market research or buttering up the designers that would later help them.  It didn’t seem like there was any real foresight or project management here.

What impresses me most are the people who can recognize what might be called the “high order bit”, which would be a point of leverage that will catupult you to a whole new level, far more than getting any one particular detail right on a task would.  There were a few people in the first season who really got this, and would recognize that they didn’t need to just go through the motions, but rather figure out where they needed to end up and what would be most impressive in the end.  A good example of this was the team that advertised on their rich-shaw (sp?) cabs.  Or when Bill cornered the market on the VIP customers in the Taj espisode.

Anyway, hopefully this season will be as entertaining as the first.