There is no longer much call for poetry at Microsoft’s devices division, the bulk of which consists of Nokia’s old handset business.
Stephen Elop, former Nokia chief executive, now heads the Microsoft unit and on Thursday had the task of announcing 12,500 job cuts (out of 18,000 in total). The axe will fall on many former Nokians who remember the flights of fancy in Mr Elop’s 2011 “burning platform” memo, in which he urged them to make a leap into the unknown to help turn the company around:
New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has produced an opening memo to employees that is rich in repetitive rhetoric but short on substance. Here is what he really meant.
From: Satya Nadella
To: All Employees
Date: Feb. 4, 2014
Subject: RE: Satya Nadella – Microsoft’s New CEO
Today is a very humbling day for me.
“Humility” is the appropriate tone for CEOs these days, but, believe me, when I got the nod I was punching the air like Steve Ballmer on an adrenaline high.
Stephen Elop, ex-Nokia, soon-to-be ex-husband
I firmly believe boards need to be less squeamish about prying into their senior executives’ private lives, particularly when divorce is looming, because the corporate consequences can be grave. Now researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business have broadened the debate to suggest that shareholders should worry about chief executives’ marital disharmony, too.
Divorce, they write, could undermine CEOs’ control and influence, affect their “productivity, concentration and energy levels”, and have an impact on their attitude to risk. They cite Rupert Murdoch’s split from Wendi Deng and the divorce of Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources, from his wife. News of the first, thanks to a pre-nuptial agreement, left News Corp shares unmoved; news of the second, with no pre-nup, knocked 2.9 per cent off Continental Resources’ stock price as investors worried about the fate of Mr Hamm’s 68 per cent stake in the group.
The news that Stephen Elop is receiving a pay-off of €18.8m to move from Nokia back to Microsoft will be the last nail in the coffin of his reputation in Finland, where many people resent what happened under his leadership of the national champion.
Mr Elop’s decision, on becoming chief executive of Nokia in 2010 to bet the future of its mobile phones on Microsoft Windows software, didn’t work. He rejected the more obvious path of adopting Android for its smartphones. Instead, Nokia has struggled to turn Windows into a rival to the Google platform or Apple’s iOS.
As the Lex column notes, Mr Elop is getting the money despite Nokia’s market capitalisation having fallen from €28bn to €18bn under his leadership. That hardly suggests he deserves a big payout.
First came Ben & Jerry’s. Now we have a new brand: Steve & Stephen. It sounds like a men’s hairdressing salon, but turns out to be the sign-off used by Steve Ballmer and Stephen Elop in their open letter telling the world that Steve at Microsoft has bought Stephen’s Nokia handsets.
The effect leaves me feeling slightly queasy. The ampersand usually belongs to more formal pairings – Johnson & Johnson or Dun & Bradstreet – and to see it joining two first names like that gives the new “brand” a cheeky, snappy feel.
What is the Finnish for “I told you so”? That is how plenty of Finns – including a large number of ex-Nokians, swept out in successive restructurings since Stephen Elop took charge of Nokia in 2010 – will greet news that Microsoft is to buy the mobile company’s handset and services business.
It won’t make any difference to them that Nokia has an increasingly important telecoms equipment business, NSN, which guarantees a future to the rump of the company. Since the radical strategy shift of the mid-1990s, when the timber-to-tyres conglomerate refocused on its fledgling telecoms operation, Nokia has been identified with home-grown phones. But a second coming under Finnish ownership for the country’s best-known consumer brand turned out to be impossible: its future will now be dictated from Redmond not Espoo.
This outcome, or a version of it, was already in the air in early 2011 when I visited Nokia’s headquarters to look at the challenges facing Mr Elop. His decision to leap from a “burning platform”, as he called it, into the arms of Microsoft as software partner for its smartphones certainly ruled out other options, such as using Google’s Android or a home-grown operating system. But a full takeover of the phones business by the US company was not inevitable.
Four elements have conspired to make it happen.
When Nokia chief executive Stephen Elop booked the Grand Tarabya hotel in Istanbul for the group’s annual leadership meeting at the end of January, he planned a spectacular finale. As the meeting of 200 senior executives drew to a close, musicians introduced themselves into the room, playing Ravel’s Bolero, until the whole orchestra was present for the climactic bars.
One problem with examining the road not taken is that it’s usually impossible to tell whether you took the right route until it’s too late to change course.
The announcement of the Google-Motorola Mobility deal sent me back to notes from an interview with Nokia’s chief executive Stephen Elop in March, to remind myself how difficult it is to make strategic leaps in a fast-changing industry. You’ll recall that the Finnish group ended up selecting Microsoft as its smartphone partner rather than Google.
There is no doubting Stephen Elop and his lieutenants’ resolve to rebuild the mobile phone company’s platform, having declared that it is burning. But having interviewed the chief executive and some of his leadership team – as well as current and former staff – for my two-part analysis of the company’s management challenges, I’m left with a nagging question: is the crisis at Nokia grave enough to trigger the necessary cultural and behavioural change at the Finnish group?
It remains a profitable company, with a strong balance sheet and the largest share of mobile phones by units shipped. Barely five years ago, it was riding high, the darling of business school professors and commentators, and that good feeling is hard for veteran Nokians to forget.