LONDON — The scene: a tasteful, wooded corporate retreat north of Seattle. The time: one day last March. A large group — mainly chaps in their mid-40s — stand around. They seem to be in quite a state.

Here's how one described the scene: "Steve Ballmer was sobbing. Minutes passed as he tried to regain his composure. But the audience of 130 of Microsoft's senior leaders waited patiently, many of them crying too. They knew that the CEO was choked up because this retreat . . . was the last ever for company cofounder Bill Gates, as well as for Jeff Raikes, one of the company's longest-tenured executives.

"I've spent more time with these two human beings than with anyone else in my life," Ballmer finally said. "Bill and Jeff have been my North Star and kept me going. Now I'm going to count on all of you to be there for me." Aw shucks.