windingroad1.jpgSteve Ballmer has been the CEO of Microsoft since 2000 and by his own admission he is a “chop, chop, chop, chop, chop” (yes, that’s 5 “chops”) kind of guy: please, PLEASE get to the point, what’s the bottom line, what’s the “take home”?

In pursuit of the productive, efficient use of meeting time, and because he becomes “impatient”, Ballmer has banned the ”the long and winding road” style of meeting presentations (see New York Times article below, “Meetings, Version 2.0, at Microsoft”). The long and winding road is where a presenter takes the listener through the process of discovery and exploration, finally arriving at the conclusion.

Instead, send me your materials in advance, well organized, with a nice bullet-point summary as the front page, with page references to the detail if there are questions or a desire for a “micro dive.” Since we can read materials at a significant multiple of how we absorb information orally, reading is a much more efficient way to absorb hard information.

Face to face is much richer in terms of non-verbal communication, creative interaction, and brainstorming alternatives. Meeting time should be reserved for the style and type of communication (i.e. soft communication) for which they are best and should NOT be used to transfer hard information.

The long and winding road is usually of more interest to the presenter than to the audience. Save your listeners’ interest for the key points. Get right to the desired action portion of your agenda, along with the promised benefits. You will be far more effective and I assure you your audience will be most appreciative.


Meetings, Version 2.0, at Microsoft
The New York Times
May 16, 2009
This interview of Steven A. Ballmer, the chief executive of Microsoft, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Are there areas you want to improve as a leader?

A. I race too much. My brain races too much, so even if I’ve listened to everything somebody said, unless you show that you’ve digested it, people don’t think they are being well heard. Sometimes you really don’t hear because you’re racing. It’s just the way my brain works. My brain is just chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. And so, if you really want to get the best out of people, you have to really hear them and they have to feel like they’ve been really heard. So I’ve got to learn to slow down and improve in that dimension, both to make me better and to make the people around me better.

Q. What’s it like to be in a meeting run by Steve Ballmer?

A. I’ve changed that, really in the last couple years. The mode of Microsoft meetings used to be: You come with something we haven’t seen in a slide deck or presentation. You deliver the presentation. You probably take what I will call “the long and winding road.” You take the listener through your path of discovery and exploration, and you arrive at a conclusion.

That’s kind of the way I used to like to do it, and the way Bill [Gates] used to kind of like to do it. And it seemed like the best way to do it, because if you went to the conclusion first, you’d get: “What about this? Have you thought about this?” So people naturally tried to tell you all the things that supported the decision, and then tell you the decision.

I decided that’s not what I want to do anymore. I don’t think it’s productive. I don’t think it’s efficient. I get impatient. So most meetings nowadays, you send me the materials and I read them in advance. And I can come in and say: “I’ve got the following four questions. Please don’t present the deck.” That lets us go, whether they’ve organized it that way or not, to the recommendation. And if I have questions about the long and winding road and the data and the supporting evidence, I can ask them. But it gives us greater focus.

Q. How do you assess job candidates?

A. If they come from inside the business, the best predictor of future success is past success. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s a reasonable predictor. For an external candidate, what I’ve found is that reference checks are super-important. I didn’t used to believe so much in reference checks. You can always get somebody to say something nice about you. But the truth is, if you ask enough questions and you ask around, you can really get a profile of who’s accomplished various things and who hasn’t.

And I try to figure out sort of a combination of I.Q. and passion. I just ask somebody to tell me what they’ve done that they are really proud of and tell me about it. And if it’s something you are proud of, you should be able to answer any question I can come up with, at least at a level that would satisfy my interest. I ought to be able to see your passion. It might be quiet passion; it might be bubbly passion. But I should be able to sense that you are one of those people who just sort of throws themselves into things.

Q. Is there a skill or qualification or trait that you’re looking for in prospective hires that didn’t matter as much 10 years ago?

A. Mostly, I’m still looking for what I’ve always looked for: extremely smart and talented people who love to work hard, who are passionate about technology and who have a great foundation in math and science. But compared to 10 years ago, technology is more complex, products and services span people’s lives in new ways, and our business is much more global. So it’s more important that people can think outside the confines of their individual expertise and their product group and connect the dots between technologies, customer needs and markets in new ways.

Q. What’s the most challenging part of your job?

A. Finding the right balance between optimism and realism. I’m an optimist by nature, and I start from the belief that you can always succeed if you have the right amount of focus combined with the right amount of hard work. So I can get frustrated when progress runs up against issues that should have been anticipated or that simply couldn’t have been foreseen. A realist knows that a certain amount of that is inevitable, but the optimist in me always struggles when progress doesn’t match my expectations.

Q. Fill in the blank. You want the culture of your company to be more _____ ?

A. Efficient. The right word is efficient. That’s the direction that every business leader is steering their company culture toward right now. Given the current economic climate and the uncertainty about how long the recession will last, this is a time when organizations need to do more with less, and Microsoft is no exception. We’ve made good progress, but for a company that has grown every year for more than 30 years, learning how to operate under more constrained circumstances is not always that easy.

At the same time, the need to be more efficient drives us all toward sharper focus on what is important and what can truly move the needle in terms of meeting customer needs and taking market share. Of course, we need to be innovative, but we also need to be efficient.

Q. Any books on management and leadership that you’ve found particularly useful?

A. Jim Collins’s book “Built to Last.”

Q. In all the speeches you’ve given, is there a favorite line or story or passage or quotation?

A. In February I was invited to share my business perspective on the economic downturn with House Democrats at their annual retreat. In that speech, I got to share something that my dad always told me growing up, which is a simple piece of advice that really shaped my approach to life and to business.

My dad worked for Ford for 30 years. When I was a kid, he’d say: “If you’re going to do a job, do a job. If you’re not going to do a job, don’t do a job.” What he meant was, if you really want to accomplish anything, you have to be committed, motivated, tenacious and smart about what you do. That’s really just the essence of the American work ethic, but it’s one of the most important things I ever learned.

Q. If you had to choose another profession, what would it be?

A. Education, probably. I like working with young people, and I think it’s really important to encourage talent. I love basketball, so I could see myself as a high school basketball coach. I think a basketball team that I coached would have a really good chance of being a winner.

Q. What would you like business schools to focus on more, or less?

A. I’d like to see more emphasis on the importance of taking the long view. Companies focus too much on short-term results in business. It takes patience to build a great business, and sometimes you have to be willing to make the long-term investment and then keep at it if you want to succeed.

Q. If you could teach any b-school course, including one that you create, what would it be?

A. Leadership. Microsoft has grown from 30 people to more than 90,000 since I started, so I’ve had the chance to play a leadership role at practically every stage imaginable in a company’s growth and development. I’ve learned a lot about leadership along the way from some great people that I’ve worked with and through experience.

I’ve come to believe that to be a great leader, you have to combine thought leadership, business leadership and great people management. I think most people tend to focus more on one of those three. I used to think it was all about thought leadership. Some people think it’s all about your ability to manage people. But the truth is, great leaders have to have a mix of those things.