What the hell? Since my blindingly obvious post yesterday that said the post-2000 crash was worse for tech than this recent one was somehow considered controversial, how about an actual controversial statement to start this morning: Why Yahoo shouldn’t rush to fire Carol Bartz.
Yesterday, we wrote about the Twitter dog pile on Bartz, but I doubt the Yahoo board or management are feeling too much pressure from that– they’ve got actual shareholders to contend with and those shareholders aren’t happy. Many bought into Yahoo assuming there was no way a public traded company could fend off Microsoft forever and now they’ve been stuck in a stock that’s barely budged from $13 a share in recent days and hasn’t gotten over $20 a share during her tenure. (As a reminder Microsoft offered $31 per share.) People are looking for catalysts to make the stock pop and get out.
That was no doubt behind a lot of the jousting about whether Alibaba might buy all of Yahoo to settle its dispute last week– a deal that doesn’t seem to be happening, Alibaba and Yahoo for all the back and forth are still stuck in their uncomfortable marriage for the sake of the kids, or in this analogy, Yahoo’s shareholders. As we wrote last week, Bartz would be a fool to sell before Taobao or Alipay go public and she may have mishandled an already tense relationship but she is not a fool.
The other big rumor that bankers are pushing is that Bartz will be out in 18 months, and that Yahoo is currently looking for a number two to groom over that time period and smoothly slot into place once Bartz four-year contract is up. It’s a remarkably consistent narrative that several sources have told us. The problem is the root of all of the speculation is coming from bankers, and that could mean they just want the market to think she’s getting ousted. That’s how low the admiration for her stint on the job is.
Here’s one reason Yahoo shouldn’t move too hastily here: What great candidate wants this job now? Yahoo’s corner office has been like Ted McGinley to sitcoms– a career killer. Terry Semel? Respected as a mogul of Hollywood before Yahoo. Jerry Yang? Respected as one of the Valley’s most iconic founders before returning to be CEO of Yahoo. Carol Bartz? Respected for turning sleepy Autodesk into one of the best performing software stocks of the early 2000s, lauded by John Chambers as one of the best CEOs in Silicon Valley, rumored to one day be running for office because she was so popular…before becoming CEO of Yahoo.
It’s hard to find three more iconic, distinct tropes in the West Coast CEO landscape than the Hollywood mogul, the young, geeky Dot Com genius or the hard-charging, take-no-prisoners, battle-tested business software executor. And yet, running Yahoo has made them all three look incompetent. It’s hard to believe all the problems have rested with the CEOs, given the differences in style, strengths and strategy. Don’t get me wrong: All three of these CEOs genuinely screwed up. But there is something about Yahoo’s corner office that exposes your weaknesses as a leader and a strategist.
Either the board isn’t giving these people the support and leash to truly change within Yahoo or in the case of Yang turning down Microsoft– the board wasn’t there to act in the best interest of the shareholders. On the other side of the CEO ladder, Yahoo is notoriously fragmented, siloed and gutted from the last decade of uncertainty and losing new markets to Google first and then Twitter/Facebook. I don’t know if it’s still true but at one time Yahoo’s stock price was everywhere in its Sunnyvale headquarters — on the employee Intranet “Backyard,” on monitors in the lobbies, even on the displays on printers. The double-edged sword of being a publicly traded company where nearly everyone has options is that a soaring stock can be a constant pat on the back; but when you have a daily reminder that Wall Street values you for mostly cash and your Asian properties it’s like a daily kick in the groin.
There are a lot of opinions on why Bartz hasn’t done well at Yahoo. According to reports from a Goldman Sachs analyst event, she blames users, an old product and too much defecting talent. Most ex-Yahoo managers I’ve spoken with blame the fact that she doesn’t know product or advertising. Both are probably true. But there’s clearly something about the institution that sets people up for failure, and the responsibility for that lies with the people who have played a role in each hiring and firing– the board. Why should shareholders expect any better from them on the next candidate?