Ballmer Speaks to Oxford Business Students About His Successes and Failures

Former Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer sat down for an hourlong conversation with Oxford’s Said Business School to discuss his experiences in the business world. The conversation was moderated by the dean of the school, Peter Tufano, who is an old friend of Ballmer’s. The event was Ballmer’s first public appearance since he handed his job over to new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Ballmer spoke about the best advice he’s ever received and his decision to join the ranks of Microsoft in his typically bombastic style, which he said he developed while working as the manager of Harvard’s football team.

Tufano asked Ballmer about his self-professed “love” for Microsoft and how to engender similar love for a company in employees. “It’s like a baby to me that I wanted to help grow and nurture and succeed,” Ballmer said of Microsoft. “I left Microsoft — what will be the greatest joy I can get as the founder of a company? To see it flourish with me gone.”

Tufano asked Ballmer about how companies can handle failure, something the former CEO should know about, considering that he is frequently blamed for contributing to Microsoft’s recent difficulties. Ballmer has previously said that one of his biggest regrets about his time at Microsoft was not getting in on the smartphone quickly enough and losing on that new technology to competitors.

But he doesn’t think falling behind on the smartphone will spell the end for Microsoft. Ballmer pointed out that technology is changing so rapidly that Microsoft should be able to redeem itself by getting ahead on the next big device form. “What do you do when you get behind?” Ballmer said. “You give up and you go home. … Or do you say, ‘What did we do wrong and how do we make sure that we’re building assets that let us seize on things going forward?’ We say go forward.”

“If you look at things in the last ten years, I think it’s probably fair to say that there were things that did not go as well as we intended them to,” Ballmer said. He emphasized taking a long-term view, citing the fact that Microsoft and other big tech companies, including Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), took at least a decade of hard work before they reached their most successful points. When thinking about a company in the long term, it’s easier to contextualize recent failures, learn from them, and move forward without believing those errors spell the end for the company.

Ballmer said he believes a revamp of Microsoft’s brand will keep it chugging along for many more years, even though it may never be the most “fashionable” tech brand out there. “What I would hope Microsoft would mean is affordable, empowering technology for all. … That oughta be a brand proposition that if we run the company correctly can last 20, 30, 50 years or more,” he said.

“The thing I regret is that we didn’t put the hardware and software together soon enough,” Ballmer said, reflecting on his thiry-four years with Microsoft. While he is no longer CEO, Ballmer remains a member of Microsoft’s board, owns 4 percent of the company, and still has a great interest in helping his “baby” succeed.

Ballmer’s advice for young business students came from his own father: “If you’re gonna do a job, do a job. If you’re not gonna do a job, don’t do a job.” He explained that means it’s essential to have an almost obsessive mindset when it comes to the company you work for, as such dedication — being “all in” —  is what it takes to survive in the business world.

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