CEO Character Study: Nokia’s Steve Versus Microsoft’s Steve

Steve Ballmer may hang up his Microsoft CEO hat only for it to be picked up by Nokia’s chief Stephen Elop. Here’s what we know about the two Steves.

CEO Character Study: Nokia’s Steve Versus Microsoft’s Steve

Microsoft’s buyout of Nokia is tech world takeover twist that still has many commentators scratching their heads. But one element of the $7 billion maneuver may make immediate sense: Nokia’s departing CEO Stephen Elop may now be nestled inside MS, ready to take over from CEO Steve Ballmer when he departs in 2014.


We already know that Steve B. was a very different type of CEO to his peer, Apple’s famous Steve J. … but what of this new Steve versus Steve dynamic?

The Current Microsoft CEO Steven Anthony Ballmer

  • Age: 57.
  • Nationality: American, born Detroit 1956.
  • Education: Graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, A.B. in applied math and economics (1977). Stanford School of Business, dropped out 1980.
  • Former Positions: CEO Microsoft, 2000 to present. Other MS roles include SVP of sales and support, SVP of systems software, VP of marketing, Microsoft’s first business manager.
  • Character: Complex. Many note that during his tenure as Microsoft CEO the company has tripled revenue and doubled its profits. But Ballmer is known to be a hothead, and was accused of going into a rage and throwing a chair around at a 2005 meeting where MS executive Mark Lucovsky was leaving MS to join Google. Ballmer is also famous for making strange impossible promises for his company that the PR department then has to correct at a later date, and also of making embarrassingly off-target soundbites, like “We don’t have a monopoly. We have market share. There’s a difference.” He famously laughed at the iPhone on its launch.
  • What He Brought To Microsoft: Ballmer is a company man through and through, even dropping out of Stanford to take up a job at the company. Bill Gates carefully handed Ballmer the reins to his company when he moved on to bigger things, and has supported him through the years–meaning the company had great consistency of leadership. As a tech CEO he also has an unusually large and demonstrative character. But his overconfidence is also thought to have been responsible for some of MS’s slowness in reacting to the pace of innovation among the company’s rivals in recent years–particularly in mobile devices.

The Potential Microsoft CEO Stephen Elop

  • Age: 49.
  • Nationality: Canadian, born Ontario 1963.
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering and Management, McMaster University Ontario.
  • Former Positions: Microsoft EVP, Devices. CEO Nokia Corporation. President, Microsoft Business Division. COO Juniper Networks. President Worldwide Field Operations, Adobe. President and CEO, Macromedia (also, COO, EVP of Worldwide Field Ops and General Manager of eBusiness Division.)
  • Character: Calm, collected, smart. He’s seemed ready to talk realistically about Nokia’s failings in the past, and he’s also not shy of making jokes nor of speaking openly about his company’s competition. Having five kids has taught him “patience is a virtue” according to Kara Swisher. His famous 2010 “Burning Platform” internal memo to Nokia, which was leaked to the press, was intended to galvanize the employees into action by saying the company was in the same place as someone standing on a burning oil rig. It earned Elop much media praise, as it demonstrated both his smartness and his ability to be elegant and emotive.
  • What he brings: Extensive experience as a manager, from a diverse number of positions inside a group of high-ranking tech firms. Smart on-topic knowledge of managing a firm that makes mobile devices, in a world that is slowly turning from the old PC paradigm to the new mobile one. Confidence in trying to turn around the fortunes of a once-giant company that has slipped from its earlier greatness. A cool head, and seemingly excellent management skills…but does he lack charisma and the urge to innovate?

Microsoft and Nokia have been learning hard on each other in recent years to help bring about success in the mobile devices markets, and Stephen Elop is formerly a Microsoft man… so in many ways the idea that Elop could become Microsoft CEO is an attractive one, particularly given recent news that Nokia has been achieving some successes in turning its bulk around. But an Elop-controlled Microsoft would still be a juggernaut that’s staring at dramatic changes in mobile technology that are slowly but surely moving the future of the computer out of Microsoft’s traditional comfort zone. Could Elop bring about swift enough change at Microsoft?


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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)