Microsoft CEO Nadella aces first-100-day test

'A or A-,' says expert who spelled out to-do list in February

If Satya Nadella celebrated his first 100 days as CEO of Microsoft today, no one could blame him, a corporate leadership expert said Thursday.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been in charge for 100 days as of today. (Photo: Microsoft)

"I'd give him very high marks, an A or A-, for his first 100 days," said Randy Ottinger, an executive vice president with Kotter International, a Cambridge Mass. consultancy that specializes in leadership change and setting corporate strategy.

Just a day after Nadella was named successor to Steve Ballmer, Ottinger and others argued that the new chief executive had to have a 100-day plan to jump start his time in the big chair. Nadella's 100th day as CEO is today.

"No question that there's a first 100 days for a new CEO," Ottinger said in February, giving a nod to the practice of many U.S. presidents, who implement a fast-moving plan to set their administrations' political tone and agenda.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, when he pushed major pieces of his New Deal through Congress within months, pundits have graded politicians' opening 100 days, using it as a quick metric of leadership. It's the same in the corporate equivalent of the Oval Office.

Three months ago, Ottinger sketched out a to-do list for Nadella's first 100 days, saying that the new CEO had to pick his team, identify the biggest opportunities for Microsoft in a quickly-changing market, refashion the board and create a sense of urgency among not just senior leaders, but the entire workforce.

Ottinger was impressed by Nadella's performance in almost every area.

"I'd definitely give him an A on selecting his team," said Ottinger. "From the March 3 announcements on, Nadella made his decisions quickly."

That day, Microsoft announced a major shake-up of its senior leadership. Out was Tony Bates, who had led business development -- and been in the running for the CEO spot -- and Tami Reller, marketing boss and once co-chief of Windows. Mark Penn, the creator of the "Scroogled" attack ads, was shifted to chief strategy officer; Chris Capossela was made chief marketing officer.

"All of that within a month," said Ottinger, who ticked off other personnel changes, including Stephen Elop's return to Microsoft and Scott Guthrie's promotion to lead the cloud group Nadella had left.

"Making change is much easier for an insider," said Ottinger. "Nadella was able to make all these moves that quickly because he knew a lot of the players. I always would opt for an inside candidate. Outsiders are such a crapshoot. Companies have cultures, and it's so difficult if you're coming from the outside."

Likewise, Nadella got good marks from Ottinger on setting Microsoft's direction, which had seemed adrift under Ballmer.

"He's been very clear on the big opportunities for the company, so I'd give him an A on that as well," said Ottinger. "His 'mobile-first, cloud-first' is a simple drumbeat. You can digest it. And then he made moves so that people understood what he meant by that."

At the top of the list, Ottinger put Office for iPad, the apps launched in late March that ended years of speculation about whether Microsoft would support Apple's popular tablet at the expense of Windows, and if so, when. Others moves included the release of Enterprise Mobility Suite, a toolset for managing mobile devices running Android and iOS, and the elimination of Windows licensing fees for smartphones and smaller tablets.

A host of Azure announcements this week only added to the opportunity pot Ottinger said Nadella is filling.

All those were clear evidence, Ottinger contended, of Nadella's "mobile-first, cloud-first" mantra in action. "These were all highly visible changes," he said. "It's important to do as well as say if you're going to have any kind of credibility."

But not everything Nadella touched turned to gold, said Ottinger, who pointed out that the new CEO has not been able to revamp the board, another major task he had put in front of Nadella in February.

Ottinger applauded Nadella's push to get Bill Gates out of the chairman's seat, and on his side as an advisor. "Really good move," Ottinger said. "He could have either asked Gates to play an active role supporting him, or ask him to leave. Nadella chose the first, and made clear what he wanted. So that was good. But his ability to make changes on the board was limited, so I'd have to give him an A- there."

Analysts, including one from Wall Street, had worried that Nadella, being an insider, would have to deal with Gates and Ballmer looking over his shoulder if they remained in powerful positions on the board. In turn, that would, the experts feared, limit Nadella's options.

There's still that risk: Gates remains on the board, even though he has been replaced as chairman by John Thompson, a former IBM and Symantec executive. Ballmer, who recently became the largest individual shareholder when Gates continued to sell off his stake, stuck around, too. "The best thing [for Nadella] would be for Ballmer to leave, so there's not second-guessing," said Ottinger.

That's not happened.

What has happened, said Ottinger, is Nadella imparting a sense of urgency to the company's leadership and to the rank-and-file.

Under Ballmer, urgency took a vacation, analysts said earlier this year. In fact, if the reports were right about Ballmer's fall, he was ousted because of the slow speed of change under his watch.

"The reason why Ballmer is out is because the board wanted him to drive the ship faster than he was willing to do," said Ted Schadler, an industry analyst at Forrester Research, in a February interview. "He was not willing to push [workers] to go the extra mile."

Whether Nadella was given orders to march faster or did that on his own is beside the point: He has moved Microsoft at an extraordinary clip.

"I wondered if he would be able to create a huge sense of urgency to move in the new direction," Ottinger acknowledged. "Would he engage employees? Would he listen to them? Would he make smarter decisions because of that?"

One hundred days later, Ottinger believes Nadella made tremendous progress. "I give him incredibly high marks there. From everything I've heard, he came in, listened a lot, did a lot of one-on-one meetings," said Ottinger, who is based in Seattle and keeps track of the home town technology company.

And that has paid off. On Glassdoor, an online jobs and careers website, Nadella's approval rating among Microsoft employees was 85% as of Thursday, a sky-high number compared to his predecessor's. Ballmer's approval rating for his last 12 months? A dismal 39%, down from 47% the year before.

"I totally expect things will not slow down in the next 90 days, but truly creating a sense of urgency is an enormous task," said Ottinger, looking forward to his next milestone for Nadella. "If we do see a slow-down, if [Nadella] gets buried by the bureaucracy, it means he cannot fight the old culture, and that he's losing the battle."

To keep the momentum, Nadella should continue to push the company toward his vision of mobile-first, cloud-first, Ottinger said. "He has to secure that vision, perhaps by some key acquisitions. I don't know what those are, but he has to come up with a road map there," Ottinger explained.

"But in 90 days, we'll know."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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