If Bill Gates showed up at the Microsoft employment office today, would he get a job? I dont think so. After all, he dropped out of college after three years, doesnt hold a technical degree and would probably flunk those tests where you try to find out if the prospective employee works well with others.
Of course, Gates will not be showing up at the Redmond, Wash., employment office and instead will be checking out of his full-time chief software architect job in two years. Hell leave the day-to-day running of the company to take on the broader and nobler philanthropic task of improving the condition of the worlds poor. I wish him luck in his new endeavor, but it is worth noting that many of the attributes that helped him become the richest man in the world are just the attributes that Microsoft must find and nurture. Ill leave the "Was Bill a business innovator or ruthless monopolist?" question for another time. Here are the attributes that I think Microsoft, or any other successful tech vendor, should be looking for in future leaders, based on the Gates success model.
Hire the qualified over the credentialed. If you were taking on a big Web services project these days, you could easily find job candidates with two or maybe three pages of certifications and credentials. But what you really need is someone who can get the project accomplished. Gates didnt have the credentials to start a company. He lacked a track record of startups, an MBA and a long list of venture-capital backers. Its the same story with Steve Jobs and Apple and with Michael Dell. What all three executives had was a good idea and a single-minded sense of purpose to bring that idea into fruition. Credentials are easy to measure and categorize, but finding a truly qualified candidate takes a lot more time and energy.
Hire those who are willing to get their hands dirty. Was Gates a really good coder? He says yes; others say no. But he was, and is, certainly willing to get into a process, do the homework necessary to understand a technology and actually handle a product as an end user. How many of todays executives take on the role of a consumer of their companies products? Do they walk into the store or shop online, get the product delivered, attempt the installation, call the help line, and then go through the entire process one more time with a competitors product? Mac OS over Windows? Microsoft Mail over Lotus Notes? Microsoft search over Google? Gates always had an argument for the Microsoft version. If an executive cant champion his or her product based on hands-on experience, dont expect all the public relations, advertising or spiffy product managers to fill your knowledge gap.
Dont hire team players when you really want team leaders. Theres a big difference between helping a product or service come to fruition versus coming up with an idea, driving that idea forward, overcoming objections and turning the recalcitrant designer into a product champion. Overcoming objections requires striking a balance between a willingness to listen to other alternatives and benign dictatorship that says you have listened, but you also have decided on a direction. The technology world is always filled, often overfilled, with alternatives. Gates willingness to admit a mistake (including missing the rise of graphical interfaces, the Internet and the primacy of security) and then set the whole company to correcting that mistake may be his most enduring legacy.
So, as Gates hands over the reins to Steve Ballmer, Ray Ozzie et al., he has a two-year deadline for ensuring that the company is in good stead to continue to be a vibrant competitor in a world that now includes Google, open source, and new players from India and China that are not even on the stage as yet. This is one deadline Gates cant miss or extend. One way he can be certain the company is ready is to make sure that someone with qualifications similar to his own will be able to succeed at the company he co-founded.
Editorial Director Eric Lundquist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.