The more we learn about Yahoo’s new CEO Carol Bartz, the more we like. Based on anecdotes we’ve heard from Valley execs and Autodesk investors, Carol’s own introduction on yesterday’s conference call, and stories in the press, she appears to have exactly the philosophy that Yahoo needs right now.
- Not afraid to break eggs, piss people off, fire people (Yahoo needs a house-cleaning)
- Not afraid to fail (Yahoo needs to innovate)
- Not afraid to admit failure and change (Yahoo needs to focus)
- Tough (If you learned you had cancer on your second day of your new CEO job, would you keep working?)
- Direct (Sorry, but Yahoo needs some straight-talk)
- Good with clients (Yahoo needs to revolutionise display advertising).
- Committed (“I just can’t stand people that walk. I’m not built that way.” She needs to find out who’s in…and show the rest of management the door.)
Carol’s biggest weakness is still a lack of experience in the consumer Internet business. But if she gives the job 100% of her attention, she’ll get up to speed fast.
In terms of attitude and tenacity, you have to love these anecdotes from this 2004 Business 2.0 profile:
- Defying calls from analysts for her resignation, the tough-talking Bartz often lashed out at her executive team, opening some meetings with a taunt of her own: “Tell me why I shouldn’t fire the whole lot of you…”
- Bartz rebuilt Autodesk by spiffing up its bread-and-butter moneymaker, expanding the product line, and imposing adult management on a former wild child of a company… [This is exactly what Yahoo needs. Except in Yahoo’s case the problem isn’t “wild child.” It’s a lack of intensity.]
- Bartz’s…mother died when she was 8, and she was raised by her grandmother in a small Wisconsin town. She worked her way through high school as an assistant to the president of the local bank. Bartz earned a computer science degree at the University of Wisconsin—one of only two women to do so in 1971. That planted the seeds of a career that took her first to Digital Equipment Corp. and then to Sun… Bartz excelled on the sales side at both DEC and Sun, and at Autodesk she has forged an effective leadership style out of her no-nonsense charm. Tech is full of swaggering CEOs; Bartz prefers poor-mouthing to pomposity…
- She had pushed to beef up Autodesk’s efforts in digital animation and 3-D software, but the Internet boom was siphoning talent away from the company. Bartz says, “I’d go to investor conferences—with standing room only at presentations by Used-Fucking-Golfballs.com—and I’d get four shareholders listening to me.”
- The talent exodus [during the dotcom boom] particularly galled Bartz, who turned down several juicy job offers to stay at Autodesk. “I just can’t stand people that walk,” she says. “I’m not built that way.” Bartz even kept a list of the “most preposterous” dotcoms and showed it to her staff every week to keep the recruiting effort up. “I had to keep kicking them in the balls, because if we couldn’t beat GolfBalls.com”—a real company at the time—”then we’d have to get out of here.”
And now read this rendition of her turnaround at Autodesk. The situation with Yahoo’s beloved founders and entrenched culture is different, but this shows Carol can power through status quo:
Success came in spite of a party atmosphere at Autodesk that prefigured some of the excesses of the later Internet boom. The company’s offices were in trendy, bucolic Marin County. Employees brought their pets to work (they still do), and consensus ruled (no longer). [Founder John] Walker’s favourite beer was Miller, which he served by the keg at Friday afternoon bashes for the staff.
As the company grew, though, the eccentric co-founder tired of management chores and eventually retreated to Switzerland in the late 1980s. Yet he remained the power behind the throne, with a fanatical following among a group of programmers who called themselves “Core.” By the early 1990s, as Microsoft took command of the software industry, Autodesk still hadn’t released a Windows version of its flagship product—and quickly stumbled into crisis. And that’s when Walker stepped back into the fray.
From his Swiss perch, he unleashed a terrifying 44-page letter to employees. The screed accused then-CEO Alvar Green, a former company bookkeeper handpicked by Walker to run the company, of neglecting product development and thus inviting ruin. Autodesk, Walker railed, had become “stuck in the past, mired in bureaucracy, paralysed by unwarranted caution.” Green was soon out, and Walker agreed to the board’s selection of Bartz to be the company’s first professional manager. Not a programmer, she was instantly regarded as an alien presence by some of Autodesk’s coding purists. But she came armoured with a take-charge mentality. “I’m not here to appease anyone,” she told employees shortly after she started. “I’m here to build a business.”
That began, literally, from her hospital bed, where tending to office duties helped Bartz keep her mind off her cancer. Just hours after having surgery to remove a breast, she called a promising job candidate who was mulling an offer to become head of HR. “I was just awake from surgery,” Bartz says. “I said, ‘Do we have a deal or not?’ What was he supposed to say? He just said, ‘I’ve got to work for this woman.’ Then, of course, he tried to quit two weeks later when he found out what a mess the company was.”
At first, Bartz did her diplomatic best to keep Walker involved—he was still a hero to the engineering troops—but he refused any role that required him to fit into an organisation or follow rules. Bartz, however, had the backing of the board, and over time she outmaneuvered Walker, dispersing his power base within the company and gradually bleeding off his influence. He left for good in 1994, followed eventually by several of his devoted coders.
But by then Bartz had already begun to prove her operations mettle. She lined up AutoCad squarely behind Microsoft’s Windows platform and imposed formal processes and clear timetables on the once hippy-dippy programming group. Though she could not free Autodesk from its scary reliance on AutoCad upgrades to generate new revenue, which meant financial performance fluctuated with the ebb of each product cycle, she at least was keeping the firm afloat—no small feat in the 1990s, a decade that became a graveyard for many of Autodesk’s fellow software pioneers. Storied companies like Ashton-Tate, Borland, Digital Research, Lotus, and WordPerfect all hit the wall and either died or slid into irrelevance.
The more we learn about Carol, the less she seems like the safe choice and the more she seems like the smart choice. We LOVED her attitude on yesterday’s short introductory conference call:
In Yahoo’s conference call this afternoon, she lectured everyone sternly to give Yahoo some “friggin’ breathing room” and also noted that the company “frankly, could use a little management.” (Swisher)
You go, girl.
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