Steve Ballmer Goes to College: On Campus With Stanford’s New Professor

The public knows only one version of Steve Ballmer: the blustery salesman, sweating and booming away and trying to rally Microsoft (MSFT) employees or win over investors. It’s not our fault that we think of Ballmer in this way; it’s his. He put on so many of these performances that he turned into a caricature. Yet, when you hear Ballmer reflect on his cheerleader persona, you know the public image of the man is incomplete.

“What’s the old existentialist saying?” he asks me while we talk in a small office at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “A man is the sum total of his actions. Even back through high school, when we first started to study this, I began to really believe it. This wasn’t ‘I think therefore I am,’ like the Cartesians. You’re accountable for what you do. You’re not accountable for what you thought. You’re not accountable for what you recommended. You’re accountable for what you actually got done.”

“So, you know,” Ballmer continued, “would I do some of those things, if I could, back? Would I run around quite as silly as I used to? Probably not. Some of that is age. But I’m not embarrassed by it. I stand up and say, ‘Hey, it was part of what was important.’ It’s the way I felt. It’s part of what was important for my job. No, I stand behind it.”

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The truth is that Ballmer is a thoughtful man who operates not in one mode but four or five modes. Most of us oscillate among different flavors of our personalities, depending on the situation. Ballmer, I think, has more extreme shifts.

There’s the bombastic guy everyone knows: He’s the Ballmer now running the Los Angeles Clippers, the guy we profiled in this week’s cover story. Then there’s the man in the Stanford office–much more on him below–who paces around and tugs at the window shade chain and pokes me in the shoulder and makes wild gestures, all while speaking in mostly measured tones. That Ballmer showed up at a lot of Microsoft meetings. There’s also the guy at the steakhouse who is calm, analytical, fun to talk to, and deft at hopping from subject to subject. And, of late, there’s Professor Ballmer, more self-aware than people would imagine and contemplating his future with the same vigor his students bring to mulling theirs.

Professor Ballmer shows up on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to teach 80 or so MBA hopefuls. His class, Leading Organizations, runs two hours to covers topics ranging from accountability to time allocation. I popped in recently for a class dubbed “storytelling,” which mostly hit on the thinking that went into marketing products at Microsoft—and whether or not the various approaches worked. Ballmer teaches the class with Susan Athey, a well-regarded economics professor, and they were joined on this day by Mark Penn, the pollster and political strategist who has done work for the Clintons, Tony Blair, and Microsoft.

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The kids in the class serve as a reminder of everything Ballmer got wrong during his 14-year run as chief executive officer of Microsoft. Most of them use Macs (AAPL) and iPhones, Gmail (GOOG) and Google Docs. They’re direct about what they think Microsoft messed up over the years. One student critiqued the recent roll-out of the Xbox One, saying that Microsoft failed to cater well sufficiently to its core gamer base. A number of students panned Microsoft’s initial Surface ad–the clicky one–and said the company messed up by not making it clear that the computer could run tried-and-true applications such as Excel and PowerPoint. None of this rattled Ballmer. He seemed to enjoy being challenged. He conceded that the students were right on most accounts.

Professor Ballmer conceded a lot. He tried to paint a picture of the ebbs and flows that come with managing a massive organization and emphasized that he didn’t succeed or fail by chance. Lots of thinking went into everything. Of particular note: Microsoft became “preoccupied” by the threat of Linux years ago, to the company’s detriment. “It didn’t end up being the broadside we expected,” he said. As for Apple, Ballmer wished he could go back in time and run a counter-offensive to the “I’m a Mac” campaign. “In 20-20 hindsight–poosh!–we should have pounded away,” he said. And he wished Microsoft had figured out how to fetishize seemingly trivial features in new products the way Apple does. “They take something like fingerprint swiping and make it seem like the most important thing on the planet,” he said. “I’m in admiration of that.” He pointed to the pen on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 computers and said the company needed to find a way to make it seem crucial.

Read full story: Businessweek

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