Gates Redux: What's Next?

Don't swear off Bill Gates just yet from Microsoft's executive suite. If recent history is any indication, he could be back to rescue the company he founded from financial or strategic missteps like so many of his contemporaries, including Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz and Michael Dell. It seems genius entrepreneurs never die; they just feign retirement.

No sooner did Gates tearfully bid adieu to daily operations as Microsoft's founding non-executive chairman than his name was being floated (however remotely) as a possible vice presidential running mate to presumptive Republican candidate John McCain, to whom he has made individual contributions. "Several Republicans and even some moderate Democrats called the Microsoft founder John McCain's dream running mate," Politico noted, adding that Gates most recently has sided with Democrats. While it's a less likely prospect than Gates becoming Apple's co-CEO, it underscores an eagerness by an innovation-deprived political system to embrace and transfer the genius that has made Microsoft a global powerhouse.



Former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Carly Fiorina also has been mentioned as a possible veep choice for McCain, and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has been spending time with the campaign. But the world of corporate point-counterpoint is dramatically different from the political treadmill, although both often come down to satisfying public constituents.

In fact, former CEO geniuses have difficulty finding any kind of meaningful application of their intuitive and inventive skills outside their respective companies, which explains why so many high-profile, Type A CEOs have returned to the mothership.

Steve Jobs' boomerang love affair with Apple is legendary. In 1985, he was forced out of the company he founded--vaulting him into what he calls one of his most creative periods, during which he forged Pixar Animation. In 1997, Jobs triumphantly returned as CEO to reinvent Apple with iPods, iPhones and Macs on steroids. "Apple has always been, and I hope it will always be, one of the premiere bridges between mere mortals and this very difficult technology," Jobs told Time in 1999.

In the 18 months since he has returned, Michael Dell has been working to turn around the computer company it took him two decades to build. He has shepherded the international rollout of a hybrid laptop computer and PDA device that could jump-start the brand. "I started the company, so it's my child. I feel responsible for it," he defends.

Howard Schultz also recently returned as hands-on CEO of Starbucks, where he has been quietly lurking behind every decision and new direction since departing daily operations in 2000 to become chairman and chief global strategist. Schultz returned to the operating fray just as the domestic economy began to deteriorate. The worst of Starbucks' painful retrenchment was announced this week, with plans to close 600 stores and lay off more than 12,000 employees.

The notable exception: former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. He not only successfully left the Mouse House, he crafted a template for the new media chief executive, overseeing a portfolio of fledgling digital online ventures like Veoh and Vuguru.

It could be that Eisner has discovered, away from the corporate mayhem, what Steve Jobs referred to in his oft-quoted 2005 Stanford University commencement address. "The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."

Only time will tell whether Gates regains his footing as the inventor and designer brilliant enough to create Microsoft, which has become bogged down in survival acquisitions and other quick fixes to preserve its software applications dominance. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who has been calling the shots under Gates' tutelage, is said to be planning a new run at Yahoo's search business with the help of large corporate partners such as News Corp. or Time Warner. Microsoft's announced acquisition of Powerset Inc., a semantic Internet search company, is not considered a major step to closing the competitive gulf between its remote third place and Google's monopolistic search capabilities. The Justice Department investigation into Yahoo's proposed search service alliance with Google could, ironically, facilitate Microsoft's next move.

At 52, Gates can build new legacies, which he says will most likely be tied to the philanthropic works of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But the urge to innovate amid the most powerful technological sea change in a generation will likely render more of what Gates does best: engineer digital lifeline products. However long it takes, Gates is now a member of an exclusive club of "retired" CEO geniuses, who already have left an indelible mark on the world, and see themselves as still having more to do.

Their essence is best captured by Jobs' noteworthy description of his free-spirited, visionary corporate breed. "Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes ... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."

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