Microsoft's John Thompson Brings More to Role Than IBM Lessons

More than his IBM experience, the greatest thing John Thompson brings to the Microsoft chairman role, says an analyst, is his personality.

As Satya Nadella finds his stride as Microsoft's new CEO, much has been made of the new role Bill Gates will play, leaving the chairman's role to spend time advising Nadella on products. Less has been said about the contributions of John Thompson, who has shifted from his position as lead independent director of Microsoft's board into the vacated chairman seat.

And still, what has been said is too much, according to Thompson, who recently told Fortune that the press has made him into something of a showboat.

"Somehow the world got this view that I was bigger than life. I was doing my job, just like the other directors who were a part of the committee," Thompson said, discussing the effort to find a replacement for outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer, according to the Feb. 27 report. "The mass characterization of me as this, you know, person who had this flame being fanned to create this pervasive view of who I was and what I was doing and all that, that's just not true."

Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies, happily vouches for Thompson's character.

"Thompson is the solid citizen," Kay told eWEEK. "I feel like he's been the adult supervisor all along. In many ways, the founders [of Microsoft] were always a little capricious and adolescent … but Thompson is this very measured guy who nonetheless has a lot of energy and has been a big agitator for change."

Thompson is the CEO of Virtual Instruments, a company that makes products that monitor the routing of information through a data center to ensure the health of the whole. Before that, he spent a decade as the CEO of security solutions provider Symantec, and before that, he held numerous roles at IBM. According to his Microsoft bio, these included roles in sales, marketing and software development. He was also general manager of IBM Americas and was a member of IBM's Worldwide Management Council.

Thompson's experiences at IBM—where the state of business, at the time, was very like Microsoft's position today—should give him key insights to offer Nadella.

"I think one of the things IBM learned was when their monopoly ran out and they had to compete with a bunch of smaller, more agile companies, they needed to have a different rate and pace of change," Thompson told Fortune.

"Lou Gerstner coming into IBM [as CEO] certainly brought about a sense of urgency that some would argue the company didn't really have at the time," Thompson continued. "Clearly the monopoly was gone, and clearly the market was loaded with a host of new competitors in almost every segment they were in. It required a leader who was willing to say, 'Here's what we're going to do, and here's what we're not going to do."

Over time, he added, that kind of leadership changed the culture at IBM.

Certainly his IBM experience is relevant, Kay said. "If you look at a firm that was heavily dominant but that becomes one among many, he certainly lived through that experience and understands it very well. But I think it's even more helpful that Thompson has the personality he has. He's a team player, and he can negotiate between organizations. These are very different skills than building software."

Kay added, "Plus, he knows the tech business, so he isn't snowed by the tech high priesthood, who can [edge you out of a conversation] by retreating into code talk. He can argue on equal footing with people like Bill Gates."

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