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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • September 28, 2013
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The Big Lesson Every Business Leader Must Draw From Steve Ballmer's Exit 

A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
This week’s decision by Steve Ballmer to step down as CEO of Microsoft is one that I and many other commentators have heralded as inevitable for some time. And while it had a positive effect on both Microsoft’s stock price and the market as a whole, the timing of Mr. Ballmer’s long-overdue exit won’t do much to cement his legacy.
Let’s be honest, it’s unlikely that future MBA students will be studying Ballmer’s years as Microsoft’s CEO for clues on how to be a highly successful leader, for reasons this graphic makes clear. In the pantheon of great business leaders of the modern era, Mr. Ballmer isn’t likely to get a seat at the big table.
There are many reasons why the Ballmer era at Microsoft can best be summed up as ‘meh’, but the main reason he never achieved truly great things boils down to one unassailable fact, one that many small- and medium-sized business owners fail to understand: the sports-coach-as-leader model doesn’t work in business.
A keen follower of both basketball and football, it’s clear that Steve Ballmer’s leadership role models were sports coaches – people like Bobby Knight and Steve Sarkisian, full of fire, fear, volume and passion. (If you have any doubt about this, take a look at a few of these videos of Steve Ballmer in action.)
The problem is, the sports-coach-as-leader model will always fail in business, for two important reasons:
First, unlike in sports, success in business is not achieved by a series of discrete events.
Let me explain it this way. How does a great sports coach achieve success? With three main contributory elements: select and train highly competent individuals; develop a workable game plan; motivate the team to execute. Do this successfully once, and you’ve won a game. Rinse and repeat often enough, you’ve won a season. Do all three for long enough and you’re a legend.
Here’s the thing when it comes to business: There are no games. No seasons. At times, there doesn’t even seem to be a clear score. Everything happens all at once, all the time. It’s like playing multi-dimensional chess, with no clear definition of what checkmate is, let alone a clear path to how you might achieve it.
In sports, success is recognized step by step. In fact, that’s the only way you can succeed in sports – win one game; pause, reflect; win another; then another, and another. Sports allow you to build on those successes, to regroup if you’ve failed, to pause between games and re-write the playbook. You get to rehearse, run practice plays, experiment – and all without consequence, because the game isn’t for another week.
Take that sports-coach attitude into business, as Steve Ballmer did – an attitude that says we’ll work harder, be more motivated, rehearse and practice more than everyone else, that we’ll crush our opposition with sheer brute power – and you’ll be left wondering why your business feels like it’s going backwards, irrespective of the strategies and tactics you employ.
When Microsoft ceded search to Google, it wasn’t one game lost, that could be caught up the next week – it was a crushing blow to the entire infrastructure on which much of Microsoft’s future software and services could be hung. When Ballmer famously mocked the likelihood of the iPhone ever selling in any great quantity, Microsoft didn’t lose three points and drop to second in a league table – it missed out on an entire market (mobile devices) for a very long time, and possibly, forever. When Ballmer treated the acquisition negotiations with Yahoo as if they were two rival teams who would get to meet again later in the season, he didn’t give up home field advantage – he blew the opportunity to revolutionize the entire face of the industry his company helped found.
The second key difference between leadership in sports and in business is that in business, you don’t get to see the whole picture.
If you’re coaching the Lakers, or the Patriots, or Tiger Woods, you get to see the whole team – everyone – out there doing their thing – all of it. You get to see everything every team member does (and if you do miss something, it’s all there on video, ready for review at a moment’s notice).
This makes the sports coach a powerful, ubiquitous, almost omniscient figure – they see all, judge all, act on all. It’s fair to respect, and act on, their conclusions about almost any aspect of the team’s performance because they’re in possession of all the facts. They also get to personally interact with, and change the behaviors of, every team member involved.
Contrast this with a business of any material size (and certainly with a business the size of Microsoft), and it takes only a moment to see that a CEO couldn’t be in a more different place than a sports coach. With 50, 60, 90,000 employees, do they see everything that’s going on? Not a chance. Do they personally have access to every team member? Um, no.
So what happens when you bring the sports-coach school of leadership to a complex business? You end up out of touch and almost impotent, while believing the opposite is the case.
So if you’re managing (or worse, leading) as if you’re coaching a sports team, beware – chances are you’re headed for the exit.


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