Microsoft's Next CEO: Ford's Mulally As 'Caretaker'?

Microsoft directors want Alan Mulally to shepherd the company through its restructuring while an insider is groomed for the CEO role, reports say.

Speaking Tuesday at the company's annual shareholder meeting, Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates said he has met with "a lot" of CEO candidates, but that the selection committee will not be rushed into a decision. A new report published the same day reiterated rumors that Ford CEO Alan Mulally is the front runner for the job, but it added a twist: Microsoft directors want Mulally to shepherd the company for only two or three years, after which a Microsoft insider would take over.

If a two-step succession plan is in the cards, Gates maintained his poker face Tuesday. He confined his remarks to predictable topics such as the complexity the next CEO will face and the progress the selection committee has already made. He also choked up, in a moment more characteristic of retiring CEO Steve Ballmer, as he said Microsoft is unique because it has had only two CEOs in its 38-year history.

But according to AllThingsD, if the next CEO is Mulally, his tenure could be much shorter than that of his predecessors. Citing unnamed sources, the website said Microsoft wants Mulally to serve as a "caretaker" CEO while an internal successor is groomed.

If Microsoft followed this plan, candidates to eventually succeed Mulally could include COO Kevin Turner, executive vice president Tony Bates, and Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, who is joining Microsoft as part of its acquisition of Nokia's device business. But the report claimed Satya Nadella, who leads Microsoft's enterprise and cloud businesses, is the leading internal candidate.

[How will Nokia's device business benefit Microsoft? Read Microsoft-Nokia Deal On: What's Next?]

Forrester analyst David Johnson told us Nadella could be a galvanizing leader. Johnson praised Nadella not only for leading Microsoft's cloud and enterprise products to rapid growth, but also for his an energetic and charismatic presence. "That's the kind of leadership Microsoft needs -- people who can energize."

Ballmer recently revealed that he decided to retire upon realizing that, because he had instituted Microsoft's current management culture, it would take someone else to oversee its restructuring. On Tuesday, in his final shareholder meeting as CEO, he said the company is positioned to make strides in the mobile and consumer markets. It has the assets to place "bold bets," and the Xbox One, which will be released Friday, is an example of its "devices and services" strategy, with numerous divisions' efforts unified under a cohesive, common goal.

But the identity of Microsoft's next CEO hangs over its prospects just as much as the Xbox One. According to a recent Bloomberg report, if Elop got the job, he'd consider selling off not only Microsoft's Xbox business, but also Bing.

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Microsoft CFO Amy Hood said Tuesday that the company hopes to announce a decision in the next few months, though some reports claim Microsoft board members want to name a new CEO as soon as next month. When Ballmer announced his retirement in August, he said he'd step down within a year.

If Mulally were to come on in a caretaker role, it would support the view repeatedly affirmed by CEO selection committee head John Thompson that the next CEO will pursue Ballmer's devices-and-services vision. The prospect is also interesting in that it's the second multistage succession rumor to pop up this month. The Chinese Windows Phone enthusiast site WPDang recently claimed (without citing sources) that Turner would preside as CEO for the next few years and would be replaced by Elop.

But if Mulally joined Microsoft for a short-term run, one would have to wonder what would be in it for him. The role of Microsoft CEO is among the most prestigious and impactful in all of business, but Mulally has already been hailed as a savior at Ford, which isn't a bad gig, either. If offered the job, "he'll have two choices," Johnson said. "He can lead Ford, a successful company, or he can do something he's really good at: redirect a company's culture and remake its competitiveness in the market."

Having stabilized Ford, Mulally might be eager for a new challenge, if not for a long-term job. Ballmer told The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that Mulally helped him structure Microsoft's reorganization plan, which only bolsters this possibility.

Overall, though, Microsoft's CEO prospects ostensibly remain in flux. AllThingsD said that, even though Mulally, Elop, Nadella, and others continue to generate buzz among Microsoft directors, it's possible that a dark-horse candidate could charge into the conversation. Some Microsoft insiders are holding out for candidates who reportedly include a wide range of telecom leaders, as well as former Microsoft execs who have moved to new ventures.

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