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Bill Gates Opens Up About Microsoft CEO Succession

Bill Gates is open to spending more time on the Microsoft campus to help the person who becomes the new CEO, but he will not devote 100 percent of his time to being chairman, he said in a wide-ranging interview late Tuesday night.

Gates appeared for the full hour on the "Charlie Rose Show" to discuss his new 25-page report and planned speech at the Davos conference predicting there will be almost no poor countries by 2035.

Toward the end of the interview, Rose spent several minutes asking Gates about the search for the next Microsoft CEO to follow Steve Ballmer, who will step down by next August.

Bill Gates (left) and Charlie Rose. (Image source: @charlierose Twitter feed.)

Gates deflected a question aimed at eliciting the profile of a leader who would fit the current demands of Microsoft. "That's not a fruitful speculation," Gates said, then joked both about the board having a "mysterious process" and likened that process to Papal succession by talking about waiting until "the smoke comes out."

Gates expressed his willingness to help and his unwillingness to become a full-time chairman:

ROSE: Are you spending more time at Microsoft now because of the changeovers that are taking place?

GATES: Well, we're in a CEO search, so the board is more active right now, making sure that goes well. Once there's a new CEO, then it'll be up to that CEO if they want me to up my time there a bit for a while.

ROSE: If the new CEO says, 'I need you on campus,' would you be willing to be there and spend full time?

GATES: Not full time. My biggest job is going to be the foundation work, but I would make tradeoffs and spend more time if that was...

ROSE: Now, is it productive for you to spend more time? Because some would say you don't want the guy who founded the firm around. Others would say, yes, you do, because you want a CEO who is strong enough to be his own person to be able to have that.

GATES: It's up to them.

Later in the interview, Rose challenged Gates about Microsoft's lack of succession planning, and that back-and-forth ended with both laughing about the CEO succession problems at Hewlett-Packard:

ROSE: You and I know that often executives are admired if they plan well for succession. It doesn't seem like there's been smart planning for succession at Microsoft.

GATES: Well, I think tech companies are very challenging to run. The rules of what works in one era, that will change. I can't think of a tech company that had some textbook case of succession going on, so I apologize.

ROSE: I was trying to think about Hewlett-Packard, whether that worked?

GATES: Oh my God. (both laughing)

Later in the conversation, Gates answered a question about whether Microsoft needed a young Bill Gates to run it now.

"Microsoft's success was always a team of people. To sort of mythically say I alone did something and now that's missing, that oversimplifies the past and so I think it's a dangerous model for the future. It needs a mix of people. It has wonderful people there. The new leader's going to pick the new direction. That can either be somebody who draws on the technical strength of the people in there or themselves, they might be technical. There are multiple models that you could go down," Gates said.

He also started with the pronoun "she" in describing the next leader, which was probably an artifact of the "he or she" way that Rose phrased the question, but was interesting because few women have been named in public speculation so far about the next leader of Microsoft.

"She has to love, or he has to love, technology and either be good at orchestrating deep technical thinkers or bring some of that themselves," Gates said.

Posted by Scott Bekker on January 22, 2014