The coach is standing at his team’s annual “end of the season” booster’s banquet, basking in the adoration of the University’s most wealthy and influential alumni. As he steps to the microphone, he is awash in thunderous applause. He begins his remarks in jest by asking, “Would you still love me if we had gone 0-11 this year?” From the back of the room a voice shouts out, “We’d still love you coach. We’d miss you too”. As this story illustrates, for most of us, our relationships tend to be based on the answer to the unspoken question, “what have you done for me lately?” The most recent guy to learn this lesson the hard way is none other than that Godfather of the Software Industry, Bill Gates. Now, all you dorks out there cheering because you’ve always believed that Microsoft is the evil empire need to cool it—everyone knows it’s actually Google—and think about what’s happening here, because in our quid pro quo world, you may be next. Apparently, making thousands of people multi-millionaires and creating a series of products that fueled an industry isn’t enough for some folks—or at least three Microsoft board members—and they’ve decided that it is time to put the bespectacled one out to pasture.
Oscar Wilde once said that real friends “stab you in the front”, so it looks like Mr. Gates doesn’t have to look further than his own sternum to find the knife that has just been inserted into his thorax. I guess 10 years of a flat stock price—I thought that was why Ballmer was leaving– will turn even the most collegial relationship sour, but Bill Gates, really? I suppose if it can happen to that Men’s Wearhouse guy, than it can happen to anyone.
I don’t know how many people are happy at the prospect of the man who gave us Windows being forced to leave the company he founded—I’m sure Mrs. Gates is less than enthused, “Oh great. Now he’ll be around the house all the time bugging me about why I decided to put the ottoman over there”—but some folks are always willing to dance on a grave. Apparently, one portfolio manager greeted the news of the dissension in the Microsoft ranks by stating, “This is long overdue. Replacing the old guard with some fresh eyes can provide the oxygen needed to properly evaluate their corporate strategy”. Wow. Where is the love? A guy goes all in on the Zune and thought Vista was a good thing, and all of the sudden it’s “let’s get him a rocker and an AARP membership card so we can move on”. For you doubters out there, it’s a cruel world folks.
I suppose this was bound to happen. For years, business consultants have subscribed to a theory of corporate evolution that asserts that the person who founded the company isn’t always the best one to lead it as it continues to grow. As we’ve all seen, this is particularly true of the technology industry. How often have we seen the guy who had the brilliant idea that launched an industry giant deposed by some board imposed technocrat when they are found lacking in the “works and plays well with others” skill set (see Jobs, Steve)? I myself have noticed my marketing guy giving me some strange looks lately. Et Tu Brute? So maybe what’s happening with Bill Gates was always bound to happen and it just took longer than normal.
I guess the lesson to learn here is that no matter how successful you are, there are always people just waiting to knock you down. Ancient Roman generals, for example, would always have a slave ride behind them in their chariots, as they celebrated their triumphs amidst the adoration of the citizenry, to whisper the admonition, “All fame is fleeting” in their ears to remind them of the fickleness of the public. So for all you fledgling entrepreneurs out there, enjoy your time in the sun, play nice with all the kids until your time eventually comes and never question your wife’s choice of ottoman placement.