You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with a tougher executive position than Carol Bartz. As the CEO of Yahoo, she had to step into the shoes of the Founder, fix the mess he caused with the board, figure out what her company actually “does” these days, and then decide how to compete in ecosystems dominated by Google, Microsoft and the sports and entertainment giants. So when I heard the UW Foster School of Business was bringing her into town for their “Redefining Leadership” series, it was a can’t miss opportunity.
First impression – I was shocked and pleased by how personable and affable she is. It was a fairly conservative environment – a large auditorium and a moderator doing Q+A – but she was candid and downright funny. The moderator did not take us through much of a story arc in his line of questions, so rather than recap the event in paragraph form, here are a few bullets that stood out.
(paraphrase) Business schools put too much emphasis on “teamwork.” Individuals have different goals, even within a team. It’s unnatural to think that in a team setting, you can all be motivated by the same thing. Learn teamwork on a sports field instead.
On Corporate Strategy vs Executing on Tactics:
It’s tempting to go into a firestorm and put your head down, and ignore what the road looks like outside the fire. 3,4, or 5 year plans never work. In fact, any plan that you had in December is now wrong. But there are always people in a company who love thinking long term about what the company should be doing down the road.
You need to build your business so that 70-80% is stable and going to be consistent, but that 20-30% can change and be changed to adapt quickly to what is happening around you.
Thinking is a skill. Understand when you have someone who is good at it.
On Joining Yahoo:
Yahoo had been working with tons of data, but hadn’t actually made any real decisions for a while. She needed to make a couple of decisions quickly to shake people up. She also found that people were hungry for interaction, or even communication, from the executive level.
In her first 5 weeks, Bartz held 45 minute conversations with staff members, and always ended the conversation with, “Who else should I be talking to?” From this, a clear pattern of thought leaders and key influencers developed, which didn’t necessarily map to an org chart. The standout members at Yahoo were recognized by multiple people she talked to.
The Yahoo Ad campaign was meant as much for the staff as more the consumers. She needed to show the staff that Yahoo was relevant, and being on national TV helped that.
Fail. Fast. Forward. You have to try new things. If you aren’t ever failing, you aren’t innovating. But make sure you can fail quickly, so you can change course and try the next thing. Always be looking forward. Don’t dwell on the failures, and don’t penalize people. Take the learnings to the next test.
If you look at life, the biggest mistakes are always the things you didn’t do.
Change is a muscle. If you don’t exercise it, you lose the ability to do it, or do it well.
You need to have a good understanding about what in your business needs to stay stable, and what parts can change. Know that your people need to be able to handle that.
You need people who can be interrupted without negative effects.
You have to pick your battles and understand what is really important. Your culture is secondary to having a company that a) Makes Decisions, b) Moves Forward and c) Gets Things Done. You can’t sacrifice any of these things for “company culture.”
On Identying Strong Performers, and Career Development:
Think of a bell curve. It’s really easy to spot the folks on either extreme. Your top performers easily stand out. They volunteer for projects, they are the ones you think of first to solve a problem for you, and they tend to self-select and join in a pack together. So, they are pretty recognizable.
But the harder thing is to find the people with that same potential, and stretch them to turn them into top performers. They may be quieter, or not on the projects that get as much recognition. So it’s important to find these folks and put them in positions where they can become stars. They aren’t the average employees making the most noise – so you need to look hard for the hidden talents and figure out ways to cultivate these quiet ones with potential.
On the other end, you need to be direct and clear with the ones who slow you down. They’ll perform well somewhere, it’s just not necessarily in your company. The worst thing is that the rest of the team knows when an employee is a bad fit. and it makes management look bad when they don’t help them move on to a place where they can be more successful. You do everyone a favor when you cut them loose and help them find a better fit.
Every employee should be involved with sales. Sales is not a dirty world. You simply can never really understand what your company does until you actually try to sell it to someone. Understanding why someone says “no” to you will help you figure out what your company can do better.
On Personal Life vs A Business Life
Yahoo delivers 100 Billion emails a day, and filters out another 600 Billion spam messages. When their servers go down, it’s a big deal. But, Yahoo doesn’t cure cancer. It’s a web site. Your job is probably not curing cancer either. Enjoy yourself, experiment, laugh – don’t pretend you are more important than you are just because you have a boss or client who wants something. Chances are pretty good the world will go on without you completing that one task you are stressing out about.
Don’t add pressure to yourself by thinking about the “would haves, should have or could haves.”
On Developing Employees:
Annual reviews are a waste of time. Yahoo quit doing them. Instead employees and managers are tasked with making sure they have a substantive conversation at least once a quarter.
An annual review is useless because you have an opportunity for feedback, and have to sit on it for 6 months. You wouldn’t wait 6 months to reprimand your puppy for going to the bathroom in the house, why treat a human that way?
Difference Between Succeeding in Technology vs Other Industries:
At the end of the day, business fundamentals are the same no matter what. a) Understand what your customer wants, and deliver it. b) Measure your success and failures. c) Recruit and cultivate talented employees.