Executive Hiring: The Value of the Three Types of Focus

With Steve Ballmer's imminent departure, the question is: What should they look for in Microsoft's next CEO? Here are my thoughts, in terms of the three kinds of focus.
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There are three kinds of focus every leader needs:

1) An inner focus for self-awareness and self-management;

2) a focus on others for empathy, clear communication and interpersonal effectiveness;

3) and a systems focus, reading the outer world in order to come up with an effective strategy.

At Microsoft a failure in a wider focus seems to have had negative consequences: The company missed chances to lead every major tech development of the last several years, from search and the cloud to social and mobile computing. During those years the stock lost more than half its value.

With Steve Ballmer's imminent departure, the question is: What should they look for in Microsoft's next CEO? Here are my thoughts, in terms of the three kinds of focus.

Strategic orientation: product-focused visionary. Microsoft under Ballmer's reign mainly followed a strategy of exploitation -- making the most of the already profitable MS product line -- rather than exploration. Now they need to explore -- to find new and innovative products that become a market force. Identifying and championing innovative products and services takes an outer focus -- a firm grasp of the larger systems and evolving forces at work in technology, the economy, and the culture.

A team-builder. This means making smart people decisions at the C-level. Many there now are, no doubt, outstanding. But a new CEO will likely bring in some new players. A smart hiring assessment requires the second focus, reading other people. That skill will also be essential for team building. "Building relationships is the sine qua none of this job," said Douglas McKenna, CEO of the Oceanside Institute in Seattle, who set up Microsoft's leadership development program under Bill Gates. "You have to build relationships in the context of the tension of creative disagreement."

Assertiveness. The CEO will need to be as tough, smart and self-confident as Bill Gates, the CEO's boss as board chair. "Bill Gates is unbelievably self-disciplined," McKenna noted. "The CEO will have to match him in this," at a company where the DNA contains strands of assertiveness bordering on aggression. Such a level of self-confidence manifests a self-awareness that candidly appraises one's own strengths and weaknesses - so you know in your heart what you are good at and what you firmly believe. This takes a keen inner focus.

A while back I gave a presentation at Google on the competencies that distinguish star leaders -- top 10 percent performers -- abilities like the drive to pursue goals with one-pointed focus, teamwork and collaboration, adaptability. The pushback was telling: What might distinguish stars from average at other companies was only baseline at Google -- threshold abilities you needed just to stay in the game. That would likely be true at the higher levels of Microsoft as well.

In addition to Douglas McKenna, I consulted Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, author of Great People Decisions and of the upcoming It's Not the How or the What but the Who, and senior adviser at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder. Claudio is an old friend and widely acknowledged as the world expert on how to find the right C-level person for a given company (and whose firm, for the record, is not involved in this search).

He noted that because Microsoft needs drastic change, the word on the street is that they need a CEO from outside the company. "That's a simplistic generalization," Claudio noted. "On average, when a company is doing poorly, outsiders tend to do better -- but that's on average. I would not rule out an insider."

In addition to getting the right person as new CEO, Claudio recommended putting together a team at the top that's able to update and revise their strategy as the turbulence in the tech world churns their operating context. This means abilities like curiosity and quick learning, insight to connect the dots, openness to feedback, separating the signal from the noise to create a compelling vision, and resilience under pressure.

And Douglas McKenna added that in addition to having a broad view of how the world is evolving, the CEO will need to be "deeply involved in the mechanics of a Microsoft that can carve out a place in that world."

Learn more about talent strategy with Claudio Fernandez-Araoz in Leadership: A Master Class.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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