Alan Mulally Is the Right CEO to Save Microsoft

Long-time auto writer Doron Levin argues that Ford's savior could pull the same trick at the software maker.

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Ron Soliman / AP

Ford Motor Co. president and CEO Alan Mulally, left, shares a laugh with executive chairman William Ford Jr.

The skills that helped Alan Mulally lead a historic turnaround at Ford Motor could translate powerfully at Microsoft. Don’t think an automotive CEO (and former Boeing chief) could tackle the immense challenges facing Microsoft as some reports suggest?

Consider the scale of difficulties that the No. 2 U.S. automaker faced when Mulally arrived in 2006. Bill Ford Jr. hired Mulally to rescue an automaker beset with perilous financial, competitive, market, labor and leadership troubles. Ford was and continues to be faced with navigating its declining power in a highly complex industry that is technology-driven, global, highly regulated and dependent on a vast workforce. (Not unlike Boeing, for that matter, where Mulally spent most of his career.) Without his stewardship, Ford could easily have faced Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as did General Motors and Chrysler.

Particularly impressive was the fact that Mulally showed up for work at Ford without a retinue of allies from Boeing. Quite often a CEO recruit wants his or her own people and causes initial ripples by firing or retiring company veterans.

At Ford, Mulally swiftly analyzed and deciphered the automaker’s conflicts, proposed remedies that were simple enough for everyone to understand and drove their execution. He commenced mandatory weekly meetings for top Ford officials, retired those who couldn’t function on the team he built and held executives personally responsible for results.

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He wasn’t shy about getting down in the weeds. When Ford marketing executives decided to drop Taurus as the brand name for its large sedan he demanded to know why. When the answers he got were unsatisfying, the Taurus name was restored. On his watch he suspended dividends to shareholders — including the powerful Ford family — and sold off underperforming brands Volvo, Aston Martin, Land Rover and Jaguar.

Mulally is also an engineer. As such he’s analyzed technical debates for his entire career, from fuselage design to the relative merits of electric and internal-combustion propulsion for cars. He oversaw a massive expansion of in-vehicle electronics, known as SYNC, in collaboration with Microsoft. Corporate spreadsheet software and game consoles would hardly be a stretch.

Like Ford and General Motors, Microsoft has tumbled from leadership of its industry. Encroachment by Apple and Google, as well as advances in cloud and mobile technology, have swiftly transformed the computing environment in which Microsoft was once the dominant player across categories. Presumably Microsoft remains filled with smart, able and energetic executives waiting for a leader that can decode problems quickly and then focus, organize and, yes, even inspire.

The only real question is, does Mulally have the energy? At age 68, trim and athletic, he appears to be brimming with vitality and maintains an active schedule of appearances at charitable and company events. He’s also been awarded pay packages as large as $30 million.

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And then there’s ego. I’m sure he has one, which he keeps well hidden. I’ve been present dozens of times as Mulally fields questions, some quite probing. He seems to enjoy deflecting negativity, always with a smile, his answers circling back to new Ford vehicle models or to the dedication of Ford workers to their company. Never have I heard him pat himself on the back or defend his accomplishments, however obliquely.

Discipline and selflessness in the face of tough conditions — at least to the outside world — will be keys to maintaining morale and inspiring the kind of performance and creativity Microsoft will need. If Mulally gets the job, don’t be surprised to see Microsoft shares jump on the news.