Ditching political Elop makes for a more Nadella Microsoft

Getting the Redmond you need?

Satya Nadella and Stephen Elop

Comment With bad things possibly in the post for Microsoft’s Windows phone business, its commander Stephen Elop has been shown the door by Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella. As a hardened Elop detractor I literally cheered at the news.

The reason I cheer Elop's departure is actually a little complicated, and not entirely for the reasons that are the most popularly discussed in the media. As I see it, Elop's departure from Microsoft signals a change in the company far more profound than the long overdue sacking of ex-CEO Ballmer. Microsoft is finally changing. Into what, only time will tell.

The good Elop did

Before I dive into the far more popular subject of all the things Elop did that were misguided, I want to take a look at some of the positives. Though it's hard for his detractors to admit, there are a lot of good things about Elop.

To start with, Elop is a nerd. He graduated second in his class from the Computer Science at McMaster University in 1986. To many, this won't mean much, but McMaster is one of Canada's most prestigious universities.

In my personal experience, the "old farts" who cut their teeth on Computer Science in the mid 80s had to learn a heck of a lot more about the actual iron than the web junkies cranked out today, and McMaster in particular has put out some of the most capable technocodgers I've ever worked with. Elop started out with a solid tech foundation.

He has held a number of fairly senior positions in his career, including Macromedia, Adobe (post-Macromedia acquisition), Juniper, Microsoft and then at Nokia. He has been a CIO, COO and CEO. He has succeeded. He has failed.

For all that he has both professional and personal flaws, Elop is potentially the kind of executive that venture capitalists and Wall Street magnates like. He is one who has been through the crucible of seeing it all go horribly wrong.

The personal angle

That personality question is the fulcrum upon which his future value rests. What ultimately exerts more force is, to be honest, an open question. From the outside looking in, it's easy to assume that Stephen Elop is all arrogance and ego. Indeed, discussions with some of my sources internal to Microsoft suggest this is true.

Not all of my sources, however, paint Elop as the power-mad corporate egomaniac. You don't need to get to know Elop personally to see this: a careful study of his career will tell the tale.

The truth is simply that Elop is not a visionary. He doesn't birth his own vision and then proceed to force it down everyone else's throats. He's a bit of a bulldog when it comes to management style, but it has nothing to do with an emotional or psychological stake in his own grand design.

His personality is that of the evangelist. He is charismatic, charming and capable of inspiring others. Elop has the ability to hold thousands of facts and figures in his head and juggle them around to see that if you pull on this over here it will affect that over there.

Put simply, Elop's strength is in executing the ideas of others, not in driving through his own.

Going horribly wrong

Being a doer and not a dreamer is fine and good. Tim Cook is a doer and he's doing just fine with Apple, thank you very much. Oh, Apple may not be redefining markets every couple of years as we were led to believe happened under Jobs, but Apple shareholders sure aren't complaining about the execution portion of the equation.

Unfortunately, being a doer and not a dreamer relies on a few things that Elop doesn't seem to have gotten down to a fine science. The first and most critical is that you need someone (or multiple someones) with visions that aren't awful.

A leader is only as good as the team he builds and Elop has consistently failed to build a team that complements his capabilities and compensates for his deficiencies. What Elop is good at and what Elop thinks he is good don't entirely overlap, and that's a pretty big problem.

At Macromedia, Elop was tasked with finishing the Adobe negotiations and bringing the prize home. His three-month tenure saw the task skillfully accomplished. At Microsoft he was tasked with making a truly craptastic Office 2007 less appalling, and I think he did a fine job.

In both cases, he had a very narrowly defined goal with clear metrics for success. He whipped his team into shape, bullied any other executives that tried empire building on his turf and bulldozed through any roadblocks that were erected in his path.

Give Elop a well-defined and properly scoped mission and he is a fire-and-forget missile. The ultimate COO. Heck, he'd probably be a pretty good sysadmin.

But Elop is a terrible CEO. It's that vision thing again.

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