Carol Bartz and the CEO's Dilemma

Last Updated Sep 8, 2011 2:52 PM EDT

Carol Bartz and the CEOs DilemmaShe who lives by the sword will die by the sword.
On Tuesday, Yahoo chairman Roy Bostock picked up the phone and fired his CEO, Carol Bartz. Just like that.

Having failed to turn around the Internet company, the no BS, F-bomb dropping Bartz got dumped ... by phone.

It seems fitting for the fierce and feisty executive who never minced words or suffered fools and once said, "I always do my firing in the morning because that's when I'm fresh. I mean, why sit there all day thinking: I'm going to fire Joe at 4:59?"

Still, you've got to wonder why Bartz - known in Silicon Valley as a strong, no-nonsense executive who earned board seats at Intel and Cisco for her success as long-time CEO of engineering software maker Autodesk - wasn't able to fix Yahoo?

Well, therein lies the rub that I like to call the CEO's Dilemma. It goes like this:

How do you tell the board the truth - that replicating success from one company to another is like lightening striking twice in the same place - and still get the job?


The only legitimate answer to the dilemma is you don't. Try as you might to be straightforward about the limitations of being human in a complex, highly competitive market, sooner or later you realize that's simply not what anyone wants to hear from you.

Nobody wants a negatron or a pessimist for a CEO. Not the board, not employees, not shareholders, nobody.

They want to hear you wax inspirational about how you're going to get the job done, turn things around, turn water into wine, whatever. And if you resist, the board will ultimately lead you there with lines like, "Are you saying you're not the right person for the job?" or "Maybe you just don't have that fire in your gut anymore."

You can only fight it for so long but, sooner or later, you accept the challenge and get on with it. We're gonna come out with guns blazing, take that hill, and take no prisoners. That sort of thing. The only problem with that is you're then faced with part two of the CEO's Dilemma:

Do you fake it or drink your own Kool-Aid?


Different question, same outcome. You can fake it for a while, but we all know that you can't sell what you don't believe in. And CEOs have to do an awful lot of selling: to investors, customers, employees, and yes, the board. So, sooner or later, you've got to drink the K-A. No choice.

So, why wasn't Carol Bartz able to fix Yahoo? Who the heck knows? Personally, I thought she could do it, and I wasn't alone. I mean, I knew right out of the gate that Jerry Yang was the wrong guy for the job, but Bartz was a pro. Operationally, she certainly seemed to be making all the right moves out of the gate.

I think the problem was that she didn't have the chops for the brave new world of social media and mobile platforms dominated by the likes of Facebook, Apple, and good old Google. She just didn't get it. Funny thing is, some folks were concerned about that when Yahoo hired her. I wasn't one of them. So be it.

I got Howard Shultz wrong too. I didn't think he was the right guy to turn around Starbucks. But Yang, Jonathan Schwartz at Sun, Mike Zafirovski at Nortel, Howard Stringer at Sony, Dan Hesse at Sprint, I nailed those, at least the first three and the others are looking that way. As for Leo Apotheker at HP, check back in a couple of years.

That underscores just how tricky this stuff is. Calling whether a given CEO is right for a given company in a given situation is like playing Russian roulette, pulling the trigger, and waiting four or five years to see if you blew your head off or not.

The truth is that companies are complex entities with lots of moving parts like highly imperfect human beings with free will, complex global markets, competitors that don't really behave the way you'd like them to, and of course, luck. The entropy factor is huge. It's a control freak's nightmare.

Anyone who thinks that running a company is easy or even a science doesn't know the slightest thing about how companies really operate and what it takes to consistently deliver results. And any CEO who really thinks that, if she did it once she can do it again, has had a little too much Kool-Aid to drink.

So, you can blame Bartz for not getting the job done - the buck stops here and all that. But you can't blame her for trying or even, on some level, believing she could pull it off. That's the CEO's Dilemma. And that's just the way it is.

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