Hey Microsoft: Alan Mulally IS Bo Jackson

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October 1, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – The biggest news to hit the technology world last week was that Alan Mulally, the current CEO of Ford, is the front-runner to become CEO of Microsoft, the aging tech colossus whose current longtime chief executive, Steve Ballmer, is stepping down.

This rumor raised a single question: Can a guy who ran a global auto company, and before that, was in line to oversee Boeing’s aerospace business, take the reins of a company that makes word processors, spreadsheet programs, and the Xbox?

The short answer is yes.

Some will wonder if a “car guy” and a “plane guy” can take the reins at a company that, with Apple, Oracle, Amazon, and others, defines the first wave of major technology firms. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison had “founder genius.” Mulally is more like Lou Gerstner, IBM’s savior in the 1990’s, or game-changing leader Alfred P. Sloan at General Motors in the 1920’s. More than any other CEO on the planet, Mulally has the skills and personality to tackle the challenge of getting Microsoft back to the front of the race among 21st century technology companies. Here’s why:

1. Mulally is a proven “multisport” athlete. Like Bo Jackson, an All-Star in both pro football and baseball, Mulally has already delivered results in different industries. When Nike ran its famous “Bo knows” ads, it featured Bo Jackson playing football, baseball, tennis, basketball, even hockey, drawing head-scratching attention to the unlikelihood of such a multi-sport phenomenon. Like Jackson’s rare constellation of athletic skills, Mulally represents a combination of team-builder, cheerleader, smart risk-taker and visionary. If Microsoft hopes to remain a force, hiring him is a decision its board should jump at as he wraps up his tenure at Ford.

For those dubious about leaders trying to cross industry lines, recall that many in the auto industry were skeptical that Mulally could run Ford, much less revive it in the face of ferocious competition (Ford has long been America’s Number Two carmaker, behind GM, but it had fallen behind Toyota and Honda). And at Boeing, Mulally helped lead the company through the harrowing aftermath of 9/11. In the 1990s, he got the 777 jet into the air by making it an imperative that the company beat Airbus. At Ford, he won over the engineers because, at base, he was one of them; he won over everyone else with the same folksy yet laserlike focus he perfected at Boeing.

2. Mulally knows change. He transformed Ford. By 2010, when it was clear that Ford would survive, every single person at the global company had signed on to Mulally’s “One Ford” message. This meant selling brands such as Aston Martin, Volvo, Land Rover, and Jaguar, but it also meant empowering Ford’s thousands of employees to work toward a common objective. This unification of the company put it in position to gain ground on Honda and Toyota when they were slowed by natural disasters in 2011. Today, Ford is again number two in U.S. market share, with an edge over Toyota, and its stock is hitting multiyear highs above $17 a share.

To assess the fit of Alan Mulally with the challenges at Microsoft, just recall what John Kotter, HBS professor, famously wrote about the essence of business leadership: “Leadership is all about coping with change — envisioning a new future, communicating it, developing strategies to achieve it and, then, staffing the execution.” Who better than Mulally to take on this delicate surgery at Microsoft?

3. Mulally was an early adopter as cars and tech converged. A regular at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mulally created an alliance between Ford and the tech industry. Beyond that, Ford partnered with Microsoft starting in 2007: the SYNC system that powers Ford’s in-vehicle information and entertainment systems was built off software created in Redmond. Under Mulally’s guidance, Ford leapt ahead of all its rivals in forging a bond with a major tech brand — and Mulally became a trusted advisor to Ballmer. He’s no stranger to the rapid, all-encompassing evolution of digital technology.

For all the questions about Microsoft’s future, technology observers know that the company is well stocked with talent –and egos. But Mulally has proven that he can empower all the right people in an organization (he already has a capable successor in Ford’s current Chief Operations Officer, Mark Fields). Mulally is humble; the affable Kansan is the opposite of a swaggering “car guy.” But he’s heroic in his own way — just ask anyone at Ford. In my view, he’s just what Microsoft could use right now.

By Joel Peterson