Friday, June 05, 2009

Carol Bartz Interviewed in The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal's special section from its 'All Things Digital' conference earlier this week, which I read yesterday, contained a great interview with Carol Bartz.

It's tough to overstate Bartz's confidence in herself and her management skills, aptly proven by over a decade leading Autodesk. Her description of how she actually became interested in Yahoo's CEO job is priceless,

"MS. SWISHER:What did you think of Yahoo before you came, and how did you get there?
MS. BARTZ:It was in November, and Jerry said, Gee, Carol, gosh, would you be interested? And I said, Go away. No way; I’m not the right person. I’m not even remotely the right person. So thank you very much, but no.
MS. SWISHER:You had been running a computer-aided software company for many years, [a] much more traditional kind of—
MS. BARTZ:What does that have to do with anything? That’s not the point. Are we leading up to: I’m both too old and too stupid to know what the Internet is?
MS. SWISHER:I’m not going to say that.
MS. BARTZ:Finally, Jerry said, Will you just please come to my house and talk to me? And I said, Jerry, OK, fine. Out of sheer respect to you I’ll come and talk to you. But I’m not taking a job. So I hope you have good wine. We get there and of course we’re all very nice, and I thought, Well, I guess I’m going to have to take control of this interview.
So I said, Well, Jerry, why don’t you draw me an org chart, because I really hadn’t paid any attention to anything. He pulls a flip chart out of the closet. You all have a flip chart at home, right? He starts drawing the org. I’m looking at this thing and I go, That’s really the org?
I said, Why don’t you show me who on this org would make the big decision—the big search decision. So he started drawing arrows. And it was like a Dilbert cartoon. It was very odd. I said, you need management here. I couldn’t figure out who was in charge of anything, and he didn’t explain that part very well. So I got kind of hooked. I walked out and said, Uh, maybe I’m a little bit, 10% interested. Then they put the full-court press on with the board, and then I thought, this is going to be a blast, because Yahoo’s such an important property and such a great name, and it needed some structure. And I’m actually quite good at that, so there I was."

I've written many posts about the clueless CEOs Yahoo has had- Terry Semel and Jerry Yang. To hear Bartz articulate the strengths and weaknesses of Yahoo is truly refreshing,

"MS. SWISHER:Which structure do you think it needs? You’re talking about a management issue versus an innovation issue, which is a separate thing.
MS. BARTZ:No, organizations can get in the way of innovation, because if people are all bound up, and if they don’t know if they get to make the decision or somebody else, and if they do, what happens to them, and so on and so forth. There’s a freeing when you organize around the idea that you’re clearly in charge and go for it. It’s really a fantastic group of people, and just cleaner lines and cleaner responsibility, and freedom to make mistakes, and have some fun. This whole business that there’s no innovation side of Yahoo is just the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.

MS. SWISHER:What does Yahoo have to do going forward? Do you need to shed products; do you need to become more lean?
MS. BARTZ:No, no. We have 76% reach in the U.S. We have to keep those people engaged and happy and coming. We have to give them wow experiences. We have to give them video snacks for their news and entertainment. We have to make our sites more personal and social. Yahoo Finance chat room is sort of the first social site out there, right?
It really is about just driving great integrated experiences for people. What does that mean? You look at every one of your properties and say, how can we make this better? How can we personalize it? How can we make it more social? How can we make it more of a place to launch off? Yahoo drives more traffic to most sites on the Internet than anyone else.
MS. SWISHER:Let’s talk just about the image of Yahoo, what’s happened to it. You said before you got there you had the same idea of Yahoo, as it being broken. How do you change that perception?
MS. BARTZ:The best way to change the perception is to do a good job and then talk about it. For instance, I know everybody out there says Yahoo has lost the youth; only old people use Yahoo. Do you know in the 18 to 24 demographic we have 76% reach? Everybody doesn’t just go to Facebook. We just have to get our story out there; we have to continue to appeal to the people that come to us, and frankly, at some point people get sick of having us as the underdog and say, Thank God, Yahoo’s back. And we are back. We’re going to go step by step.

MS. SWISHER:Do you feel you need a strong No. 2 that’s more Internet-y? You have a computer-science degree. You’ve been in technology forever. I’m not saying you don’t know about the Internet at all. You’re clearly a charismatic leader, but do you need that Internet visionary kind of thing at Yahoo to re-establish it or not?
MS. BARTZ:I don’t need a No. 2 because I don’t want to be removed from the business. That’s what happens a little bit. You get confused about who’s in charge.
We have very, very smart people. And frankly—and all of you guys out there that have a little age on you will appreciate this—all you have to do is ask questions. You just have to keep asking questions. You ask questions and guess what, they go, Oh, I never thought of that. Because it unleashes so much power in people by just asking. Why do I have to be the know-it-all? My God, I’m not that smart. But I’m smart enough to just keep asking questions and say, Is that the best you can do? Does that excite you? Will that excite the customer? Does this really have to work this way?"

I've been a big fan of Carol Bartz for a long time, as demonstrated by my several posts about her on this blog. My first one was here, in October of 2006, in which I wrote,

"In my opinion, however, Carol Bartz is the class of the class. She has created value consistently at Autodesk for 14 years, with the exception of some rough years in the late '90s. Even then, however, the company tended to tread water, and not lose substantial value for long time periods.

I think it does seem unfair that Bartz is not accorded the type of press that GE's Jack Welch received for his long-term performance. Blogger is not cooperating with the uploading of a price chart comparing GE and Autodesk over many years, but suffice to say, Bartz looks as good as Welch, when the two companies' performances are compared for the years in which they both were CEOs of their respective companies.

If Bartz is being ignored because of her gender, then that's even more bad news to add to Alan Murray's contentions. Not only do poorly performing female CEOs, like Jill Barad, get spotlighted, but the rare excellent performers, like Bartz, are conveniently forgotten.

Personally, I believe that good leaders of either gender are more like each other, than they are like non-leaders of their own gender. Bartz is a great CEO who happens to be a woman, not vice versa. In this case, I'd like to learn more about how Bartz ran Autodesk so well in a tough, single market business. Welch had the luxury of multiple businesses driving GE. I think we all lose a lot when successful CEOs like Carol Bartz go unstudied and unrecognized."

With Bartz at the helm, I believe Yahoo actually has a rare chance, for a technology-oriented company, at a comeback, in terms of consistently superior total returns. Since, as Bartz so convincingly states, it's really more of a content and networking site, in one, it probably can overcome the odds which have seen basically no leading tech company fall from, then return later to a path of consistently superior total return performance.

Unlike Michael Dell's return to his company, or a propped-up, but still inept GM, I think Yahoo may actually prosper and become an attractive investment again under Carol Bartz.

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