STANFORD, CALIF., March 15, 2007 – The last time Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer walked into Bishop Auditorium at Stanford University, he was a first-year student. Today, he shared some insights from his 27 years as a business leader at Microsoft.
During a lunchtime discussion attended by more than 450 enthusiastic students from Stanford’s business and engineering schools, Ballmer provided real-world advice on business leadership, management and the opportunities ahead for Microsoft. The discussion was one of the highlights of Ballmer’s day-long visit to Silicon Valley on Thursday.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (left) answers a business student’s question at Stanford University. At right, Robert Joss, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Stanford, California, March 15, 2007.
Ballmer sprinkled his advice throughout the hour-long gathering, which was moderated by Robert Joss, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He told the students that one of the keys to successful business management is the ability to maintain balance – “manage the yin and yang” – in key areas, such as people and project management and business outlook. He talked about the importance of helping employees stretch their skills while still holding them accountable. Leaders have to be well-versed in the key issues the company faces, but not micromanage each issue. They need a genuine sense of optimism in their company while still remaining realistic about its prospects. If not, they lose the respect of employees and the media, he said.
“You can’t delegate culture”
When he became CEO of Microsoft seven years ago, Ballmer says he didn’t realize how important a role he would play in shaping the culture of the company. He sees it as a consistent top priority, and every meeting he attends or activity he takes part in – including today’s visit to Stanford – demonstrates Microsoft’s values, he said.
“You can delegate all you want with finance, marketing and even strategy,” Ballmer said. “But you can’t delegate culture.”
Or passion. Ballmer didn’t need to speak about this trait for the students to recognize the role of personal dedication and excitement in business leadership. Seated alongside Joss on the stage, Ballmer rarely leaned back into the wing-back chair. Instead, he leaned toward Joss and reached out to the students with his arms as he shared his advice. The students fed off the energy, offering applause and laughing throughout.
“With him as the leader of Microsoft, I’d feel very excited about the culture of the company,” said Collin Hathaway, a second-year student in the graduate school.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (right) shares lunch with students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which he attended – but departed, to join the fledgling Microsoft – nearly three decades ago. Stanford, Calif., March 15, 2007.
Ballmer’s hallmark passion was in full effect as he answered questions about Microsoft’s place in the current technology world. With the recent release of Windows Vista and the 2007 Microsoft Office system, “we’ve enabled the next generation of growth” at Microsoft, he said. “I don’t see a plateau.”
Long-term investment, perseverance
He said Microsoft’s ability to succeed in both the desktop PC and server markets has made the company a rare thing in the technology industry, “a two-trick pony.” Microsoft is now focused on a third and fourth “trick” with its growing online advertising and consumer electronics businesses, which include the Xbox gaming system, Zune music player and Internet TV services.
Ballmer pointed to Microsoft’s investment in online TV more than a decade ago as an example of the importance of long-term investment and perseverance. Telecommunications and other companies are now beginning to take notice of Internet-based TV services and its more interactive experience, and Microsoft is ready to deliver with its IP TV platform, he said.
“All companies start out young and age,” Ballmer said. “The truth is, great companies need to figure out how to remain vibrant…We are going to try to stay as dynamic as we can, long into the future.”
Seize the opportunity
After hearing Ballmer stress the importance of investment and research, Adnan Chaudhry, a second-year student in the graduate school, said Microsoft is the kind of company that he’d like to work for.
“You have this huge technology platform as a base and, effectively, unlimited upside and potential for growth,” Chaudhry said. “Smaller companies have similar upside, but no base.”
Ben Maritz, a first-year student in the graduate school, said he gained a new appreciation for the role of risk taking in business management from Ballmer. “You need to be able to get after it,” he said. “You need to see an opportunity (and take it) not make a bunch of small bets.”
Throughout the discussion, Ballmer received good natured ribbing from Joss and the students for leaving Stanford to join Microsoft before attending his second year of graduate school. “People seem to forgive me not having finished the second year,” said Ballmer, with a broad grin. “And if any of you find something that you have the same kind of passion and enthusiasm and excitement for, see Dean Joss about it.”
Following the discussion, he attended a private lunch with a small group of top Stanford business school students. He began his day as the headline speaker at Microsoft’s annual VC Summit at the company’s Silicon Valley campus. Microsoft holds the gathering each year to provide venture capitalists guidance on Microsoft’s strategic direction and opportunities for Microsoft to work with them to bring their products and services to market.