I have a confession to make. I’m not very swift with technology. Those who know me know that.
So I may not have been the best person to interview Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer when he came to town recently. I only can you give the bare bones of his view of our high-tech future before discussing a topic I do know something about — business leadership or the lack of it.
On the tech front, Ballmer actually was quite clear. He’s expecting a high-tech world in which computers and other devices will be able to anticipate more of our intentions, and then take the appropriate actions to help us.
Now, for example, he said search engines only understand what we’re looking for about half the time. That needs to improve — and will improve — through innovation. His company alone is spending $9.5 billion on R&D this year.
“You innovate or you die,” Ballmer, 53, said.
Consumers can expect computers to do a better job at voice recognition and understanding down the road. Screens will be “as thin and light as paper.” The interplay between voice and video will be relatively seamless.
Ballmer is impatient for the day when “the computer learns to operate me” like his administrative assistant does. She often can anticipate what he needs without requiring specific details, Ballmer said, and there’s no reason why a computer won’t be able to do that, too.
One thing a computer won’t be able to do is lead a company. I’m quite sure of that. It’s definitely an art and there have been countless failures. I asked him how he leads a company with 91,000 employees and $58 billion in revenue.
Ballmer, who just celebrated his 10th anniversary as CEO, said his most important job is to “pick and shape the right ideas” for the company to focus on. What’s “super-important,” he said, is to figure out the right projects to invest in, given all the competing possibilities.
That part of his job depends on two other critical factors — hiring the best and brightest employees and then holding them accountable for executing the game plan.
Ballmer’s job increased in responsibility 19 months ago when co-founder Bill Gates left his day-to-day responsibilities at Microsoft, although Gates remains chairman.
What’s the best way to follow a legend? Atlanta companies, including Coke and Home Depot, fumbled that issue several years ago before eventually getting it right.
Ballmer said his transition was helped by his 30-year business relationship with Gates.
“I was his partner, but I was his junior partner in running the place,” Ballmer said. With a decades-long transition, he said, “you can get things right.”
So what’s the best succession model?
Ballmer didn’t hesitate. Generally, he said, the best option is to hire a CEO within the company. Next best is within the industry and, after that, within a related industry.
But there’s a major exception to that rule. “If a company needs shaking up, you might not start from bucket one,” he said. In fact, like GM is doing now, you may tap someone from “bucket four” — a completely unrelated industry.
Something tells me the succession issue is too complex for a computer.
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