Don't Blame Bartz

At 18,500 feet, all hell broke loose.

I was standing on the Roof of Africa, my head pounding from the oxygen deprivation, my feet numb from 60 mile per hour winds delivering waves of blistering cold, and my heart racing with every misstep.

I was in rough shape.

It was 2 a.m. and we still had another six excruciating hours to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro; every step made me question my ability to get to the top. Worse still, my group was falling apart. The 50-something CEO that was climbing with our small group was suffering from a deadly combination of ego and altitude sickness. He grew increasingly ornery and mean, and eventually began hallucinating. Every pile of rocks looked like a plane crash, and he thought he was in Maine. He could barely walk, and needed our guides to steady him from falling off the mountain. Inexplicably, he continued climbing upward.

He eventually made it to the summit, with one of our guides pushing him from behind, and the other carrying his gear. He literally almost died on the mountain. It took weeks before he was healthy again.



 This is what CEOs do: They pick their goal, and then hunt it down mercilessly -- even if it kills them.

I'm not trying to glorify it, encourage it, or even justify it. It was dumb, childish, and extremely risky. I am however, attempting to explain what happened at Yahoo, and why it happens way too often.

The Board Breakdown
The problem at Yahoo was not Bartz, but the Yahoo board of directors. Remember that Bartz was hired to pacify angry shareholders, furious that Yahoo's board was delusional enough to turn down a $47.5 billion acquisition offer from Microsoft. Two years later, Yahoo trades at a third of that price.

The company lost $30 billion because Yahoo's board failed to recognize what type of company they are running. Despite its sprawling Silicon Valley campus, and loads of talented engineers, Yahoo is not, and never was, a technology company.

Chasing Technology
That's why Carol Bartz' hire was so odd in the first place. Bartz cut her teeth in software, transforming Autodesk from a marginal player to an industry leader. She had been a board member at leading tech firms including Cisco, Intel, BEA and Net App. She was by all accounts a highly talented executive.

The one thing she hadn't done? Sell a single ad.

Why on earth would you hire a tech CEO to run a $4 billion company that makes its money by creating content, attracting users to the content, and then selling ads alongside that content?

The technology (and Yahoo has lots of it) is not its business. At Yahoo, technology is purely a means to an end -- a delivery vehicle for content and ads.

The Four Types of CEOs
The reason the company has been fixated on technology, not surprisingly, is because it hired a technology-focused CEO. This was the real mistake.

There are four primary types of CEOs:

·       Sales-Driven: Sales-driven CEOs are often brought in after an operations-driven or tech-driven CEO. They are charismatic and strong leaders, but often let products languish. Along with operations-driven CEOs, they drive the best short-term results.

·       Operations-Driven: Operations-driven CEOs are usually brought in after product or technology CEOs to cut costs and "refocus" the business. At their best they look like Mark Hurd; at their most perverse, they look like Chainsaw Al.

·       Technology-Driven: Tech-driven CEOs mainly exist in biotech and software companies. They are great at solving deep engineering problems, but bad at solving people problems. They may build the next Google, but will never create an Apple.

·       Product-Driven: The rare product-driven CEO, personified by Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, has a gift for defining the way the world should look. Their ability to see a need consumers don't see themselves is amazing. Incidentally, they are often not only brilliant, but crazy.

In the case of Yahoo, the board moved quickly to solve a leadership chasm without taking into account the typeof CEO Bartz would be. You can argue that Bartz was the wrong person, and that may be true, but she was definitely the wrong CEO type for what Yahoo needed.

Yahoo is a media company with an aging array of properties that face two core challenges. One, Internet usage patterns are changing as users increasingly spend their time on social media and gaming.  Two, advertisers are beginning to demand measurable ROI and performance-based pricing models. The days of $20 display CPMs are limited.

Simply put, Yahoo needs a product-driven CEO.

Bartz is a big personality, and the media has spilled countless ink assassinating her character. What they gloss over is that Yahoo's board made the wrong choice about what type of CEO they needed.

Like the mountain climber, she was willing to do anything to achieve her goals, but in this case it was her board that was delusional.

She didn't stand a chance.

3 comments about "Don't Blame Bartz".
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  1. Richard Aylward from Hallmark Data Services, September 22, 2011 at 12:58 p.m.

    Great article! The board got what it wanted.

    I expect there isn't reader who hasn't been through a CEO change. Mine was from Sales driven to Operations.

    The focused shifted from top line growth. to cutting and a bottom line focus to fuel the CEO/Board acquistion goals.

    Soon the top sales pros left and the company was over whelmed by debt and discouragement.

    When the CEO was finally pushed out, he got his million$.
    The lesson is to always be the CEO.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 22, 2011 at 4:33 p.m.

    Call me crazy, but I believe a position on a board in company the size of Yahoo is a full time job +. To make decisions that effect a company's life, a person needs to know the company from soup to nuts and that takes time, not a few hours a month. If they don't spend the necessary time with the necessary study, how can they hire someone who represents the company when they don't know it beyond the surface and ivory towers ?

  3. Eric Randolph from The Tao Applied, September 28, 2011 at 11:24 p.m.

    I think it is really short sighted for any CEO to just think about the bottom line and how much they can make before the shit hits the fan.It's really disappointing as a growing CEO for my own company to watch so many unfocused millionaires without the ability to see and set the next goal when it comes to what they already have. If the economy goes down it doesn't matter what money you made before long the problem is going to be at your doorstep as well. This goes to show you though even though you may be at the top of the monetary ladder it doesn't mean you've mastered the system. I hope to not become one of these types of guys while I am building This empire and if you see me starting to go this way hopefully someone will remind me of the big picture. I see more people on top understandiong granted that the system of commerce that's going forward is bound to seriously dive but there seems to be even less understanding of ability to change things around.

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