The CEO You Love to Hate

 | Nov 21, 2013 | 7:37 AM EST  | Comments
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Tonight, the single-most-revolutionary device ever to hit your living room will be on sale. The gadget is the ultimate in-home entertainment paradise, with the finest graphics, amazing sensory capacity -- it remembers your voice and does what your voice tells it to do -- and a video social component that is so advanced that it might never be equaled.

That's right, at midnight tonight Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox One, an artificial-intelligence marvel, hits the stores and people will be lining up for hours to get this long-awaited new iteration, which even its rivals, Sony (SNE) and Nintendo, agree is an amazing console.

This machine is so good that one has to ask, will its CEO, the man behind it, be enshrined in some sort of technological Wall of Fame? Nope, not at all. In fact, in an irony that's so quizzical that it's difficult to get your arms around, the CEO who is responsible for the company that created Xbox One is widely derided as being one of the worst in the business, more of a candidate for the Wall of Shame than any hall filled with accolades.

That's right, retiring CEO Steve Ballmer is somehow more reviled than revered, despite the immense popularity of this machine and the amazing empire that it belongs to, one that, with $300 billion in market capitalization, is one of the largest companies in the world.

It gets worse. Not only is Steve Ballmer viewed by many as a failure during his time at Microsoft, he's sealed the deal with a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal where he says he recognizes that he is the person standing in the way of Microsoft's progress.

"Maybe I am an emblem of an old era, and I have to move on," Ballmer told the Journal. What was keeping Microsoft from succeeding in this new world? "At the end of the day we need to break a pattern. Face it, I am a pattern."

And so even he admitted it was time for him to go. Was Ballmer too hard on himself? Not to the execs I talked to at Dreamforce, the Salesforce.com (CRM) sponsored embrace of the holy trinity of cloud, social and mobile. To them, Ballmer is a befuddled fool who didn't see cloud, social or mobile coming and, when he saw it, he thought he could ignore it or, somehow, build it into Xbox One.

When I would ask these executives off line what is their biggest nightmare, they almost all said the same thing: that they, too, would be a pattern that needed to be broken, that they might wake up one day at 57 and find out that they are Steve Ballmer, too, standing in the way of progress, blocking the future, resisting innovation and tearing their own edifice asunder.

Now, perhaps because Steve and I were friends at college, perhaps because I know in my heart of hearts he is a truly great guy (hey, when you have known someone for 40 years you are entitled to make a judgment), I find this whole exercise, including the one that Steve's performing on himself, ridiculously harsh, at least by the standards that most execs play by.

First, Microsoft is up 38% for the year, in a year where Cisco's (CSCO) up 8%, Oracle's (ORCL) up 4%, Intel's (INTC) up 19%, SAP's (SAP) up1% and IBM's (IBM) down 3%. That's right. Microsoft's up much more than these other comparatives and is the only one beating the S&P 500.

Why aren't we calling for the heads of the other execs? Why does John Chambers at Cisco, for example, always seem to get a pass? It certainly isn't because he's done much better long term. Cisco today stands at $21. Ten years ago, the stock traded at $23.50 and that's despite tens of billions of dollars being bought back. Microsoft traded at $24 back then, a much better return, especially when you consider that Microsoft's paid some pretty hefty dividends.

So why is he so derided, ridiculed even? Because tech's different from every other industry. If you fall behind in any other business, you can catch up with some smarts and some good execution. Not in tech. Ballmer got left behind by Apple (AAPL), by Amazon.com (AMZN) and by Facebook (FB) and all of their derivatives. It failed to exploit the Web or mobile or social to the satisfaction of the marketplace.

To me, it seems a little harsh. I want more heat on the other guys who aren't delivering. Plus, in any other industry Ballmer would be lauded as a tremendous innovator. Nevertheless, the market has spoken. The stock's rallied 10% on news of his departure after a really bad earnings miss. Still, if you don't mind, can I just say that as the keeper of the "Mad Money" Wall of Shame, I am proud that I didn't put Ballmer on it. He just doesn't deserve the disrepute and infamy that even he seems, in the end, to embrace about his role at this great American company.

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