• 08.12.10

Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz: “I’m Just a Manager”

Think the scrutiny of managing the Yahoo fishbowl is unnerving? Maybe you wouldn’t be fazed by having all those eyes on you if you’d grown up with pig eyeballs on your dinner plate. The CEO of Yahoo on the challenges of leading, making mistakes, and cursing people out.

Carol Bartz is used to being watched. A year and a half ago, she took the high-profile job as CEO of Yahoo, the iconic but struggling tech company. She’s become a celebrity CEO whose management is continually analyzed in the blogosphere and whose public talks–often peppered with barnyard language–are posted on YouTube. In this Q&A, Bartz talks about why you learn more from bad bosses than good ones, the analogy between management and motherhood, and why managing should be a craft of continuous learning.

Carol Bartz

Carol Bartz: The first thing I did was just set up 45 min sessions with as many people as I could and just listened. I said, “Okay, what do you think needs to be changed here? What’s good? What’s bad? What would you do if you were sitting in my seat?” And then I’d always ask, “Who else should I talk to?” If you sit quiet long enough, you find out what people really think. I filled a whole notebook up in those first few weeks, just gently asking and listening.

How did that position you to actually start to manage?

By the time you get to be my age and have managed these sized organizations, you start having a pretty good people meter about who’s trying to shine you on and whose ideas make sense. It would have been rude to me to come and say “I know what’s going on, this is what we’re going to.” I don’t think that’s very credible.

You also start picking up the habits of the company. Yahoo has had this habit of never starting anything on time. It didn’t matter–20 minutes late, 40 minutes late. I mean, you could wander in when you wanted to wander in. It took me about four days to say, “You know, when we schedule something at 9:30, it starts at 9:30.” It’s just people knowing there’s going to be a little bit of discipline. That probably got to the company as fast as anything–Oh, we’re starting meetings on time? Whoa!

What else surprised you?

How fascinated everybody is with what I do. I’m just sitting here trying to do a job everyday and everybody is analyzing six ways from Sunday. Which, if you’re not careful, causes you to analyze it six ways from Sunday. In this day and age, when I’m sitting being interviewed, I look out into the audience and seeing all the flip videos are pointed at me all the red and green lights. Whoa! It’s not that interesting.

You grew up on a farm–not the most auspicious beginning for CEO of a tech company. How did that shape you?


I’m kind of Midwestern snob. I think we’re just nice people and have a great work ethic. Sometimes I think those of us in the Midwest can be intimidated by the two coasts. I just refuse to believe that. How did it shape me? You know what it’s like living in the upper Midwest. You’re expected to work hard.

My grandmother raised me. She was a real no-nonsense but very funny lady. I drove tractors, made hay, milked cows, fed the chicken, fed the pigs. The one thing I drew a line at is I never helped butcher–ugh! Grandma knew that and she’d always taunt me. I’d come home from school and she’d have two pigs eyes on plate for me. That was her sense of humor.

You once described yourself as “pathetic” as a young manager. How has your leadership style changed over time?

When I started off as a boss, just like when I started off as a mom, I though I was supposed to be the font of all knowledge–ha! That’s pretty funny. I thought that I had to have an answer, always know what to do and try to keep everything in control. Do you have kids? You soon find out you have to let a lot of things go. If I get cranked up over every little thing, this ain’t going to work. You have to figure out what you’re taking a stand on and what you’re not. You have to be as explanatory as possible. You also have to be willing sometimes to dig in and say, “No, we’re not doing that.” When you first start, you don’t have that much flexibility.

Has being a mom shaped how you manage employees?

Interestingly enough, it was the opposite. I didn’t have my first child until I was 40. I actually learned about motherhood from management. When you bring your first baby home you don’t know even how to pick it up. Jeez, is this thing going to break? I remember in the middle of the night right before I was going home from the hospital, I asked the nurse, “Would you give me a demo on how to change a diaper?” She said, “What’s a demo?”

Some managers try to govern their emotions and be the steady hand on the helm. You on the other hand are not afraid to show a little heat and drop the f-bomb.


I personally think that the most important thing you can be is who you are. If who you are doesn’t fit where you are, then you should go. If you’re trying to change who you are it doesn’t work. People sniff that out. I couldn’t work in a staid corporation. I get excited. For instance, there was an interview a month or so ago when I kind of jumped on somebody …

Is this is when you told Michael Arrington of TechCrunch to fuck off?

Exactly … .To sit there and say whatever a polite person would say–that’s not who I am. I get passionate about what I’m doing.

Another famous story is when you told Yahoo employees that you would “drop kick to fucking Mars” anybody who was caught leaking.

That was my first employee meeting. This place was living open book. I just said have some respect for each other. Maybe I said it colorfully. You think they would have remembered if I had said, “Will you please have some respect for each other?”

Yahoo faces challenges such as morale and revenues that have fallen short of Wall Street expectations. How much difference can one person make?

One person can’t do anything. It’s not me, it’s who I hire, the directions we set and so forth. John Chambers puts it very well: (CEOs) should never get all the discredit when things go bad nor should we get the good credit when things go good. In my first quarter revenue was down 14% and we’ve slowly taken it up to plus two. Do I like plus two? No. But gee, I hated minus 14. We are making very good progress here.


What do you look for when you hire people?

Can we go through the good and the bad together? Anybody can work through good times, but do you want to be around this person when everybody is cranky? My closest team member is my CFO and I have a rule: If I can’t make it through dinner with the CFO, I just can’t hire them. It has to be some one who you can actually talk to and has a personality. I don’t do well with flatliners. How many times have you been in an interview, when you’re like, “Oh my god, can we stop this now?”

I hope this isn’t one of those times.

No, it’s not. Trust me, I would have flatlined you long, long ago.

Whose worst boss you ever had and what did you learn?

I think some of my worst bosses were when I was younger. That’s a whole book. We’d be having meetings and I’d have bosses tell me I’d have to clean up for everybody. I’ve had all kinds of sh–well, whatever. I learned how manage my worst bosses later on.

I tell people all the time that you learn so much more from a bad boss than from a good boss. When things are going well, you don’t think that much or analyze why this person is a good manager. When you work for a bad boss, you say, “I am never going to treat people the way I was just treated. I’m never going to throw a hissy fit.” I’m sure a lot of my managers say, “I’m never going to swear.” That’s fine. That’s how you form yourself.


What classic mistakes do you see managers making over and over?

Setting a goal is one thing. Telling people how to do it step-by-step is another thing. That’s what happens especially with new managers. They not only tell the result that’s supposed to happen but they also tell them how to do it, which is such an insult. People just friggin’ shut down–I guess I’m not going to do it well enough. I’ll just wait to have you tell me how to do it.

Any final thoughts on leadership?

I think managing is a real job, something you should always work at and try to be better. I’m constantly questioning how people react to what I’m saying, if I should change something or if I should approach something differently. You have to take it as a craft. Frankly, I’m no longer a vertical person. I am not an expert in writing code, selling the product, or whatever. I’m just a manager. And so I have to view that as the most important thing and keep learning continuously.