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Babson's Meeting With Microsoft's Steve Ballmer

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, was in Boston last Friday and graciously added an MBA roundtable to his agenda.  His team set up an hour for him to meet with a select group of MBA students and a faculty member from seven local business schools.  I readily admit that while I’m not a fan of the cult of personality that follows many of the CEOs of our largest companies, I do relish opportunities like this to try and figure out how they think about the world – and their place in it.  This was a terrific hour and I very much appreciate Mr. Ballmer’s time, approach, and thoughtfulness in talking with our students (yes, intentional emphasis.   And I must admit I was also very proud of our Babson students and they manner in which they prepared for this opportunity. 

Mr. Ballmer spent some time talking about basic products and strategies, with a special focus on how Microsoft thinks about, encourages, manages, and funds innovation.  I was quite intrigued when he talked about innovation and productivity as rather the same thing, although he did say that he probably considered productivity more incremental.   He was quite clear when he said, “The innovation I love is innovation that people actually want.”  And then he put that to immediate use.  He noticed that a few of us were taking notes.  Yes, pen was physically meeting paper at several places around the table and on several laps as we tried to be inconspicuous while catching words of wisdom.  He immediately identified this as a technology opportunity, noting that we all probably thought it not socially acceptable to pull out our tech tools in this particular setting.  I already want the type of thin tech tool he described to use unobtrusively at meetings, then fold up and put away.

My favorite part of the hour was when a student asked Mr. Ballmer, “How you learn to lead leaders?”  What a great question!  This must be something that Mr. Ballmer has consciously pondered, because he quickly shared a hierarchy of leading and then three types of examples of ways of leading leaders in a large organization.  First you do something, then you manage, then you MANAGE, then you are a manager of managers, then a leader, and only in certain companies do you finally have the opportunity to lead leaders.   He described what he called the Warren Buffet approach in which there is intentionally no collaboration between the leaders; they each focus on their own areas.  He then had the GE approach in which Jeff Immelt connects people through management principles.  And finally, he shared with us the Microsoft approach in which it is the strategies and customers that are the points of connection.  All in all it was a quite intriguing consideration of designing a fit between leadership and organization.

One of the last things I learned is that Mr. Ballmer (although he told us to call him Steve) and I share a philosophy about work lives.  He advised the students to do whatever it is that they have a passion for, or as he says, whatever switches you on.  Do that even when it is in direct contrast to what you think you are supposed to do.  Makes perfect sense to me and it certainly worked out well for him.

Thank you again, Steve.   I guess I am a fan.

Patricia G. Greene, Professor of Entrepreneurship