Yahoo's New CEO: The Best News I've Heard All Day

No mixed feelings on this blog, I think Yahoo naming Carol Bartz its new CEO (if the reports are true) is great news for the company. First, my usual disclaimer that I say all the following as a reporter, not a Yahoo contractor. Nothing I see or hear in my day-to-day role at Yahoo is ever reported on this blog or anywhere.

That out of the way, some details about her chops as I wrote for TechTicker last week:

"Bartz was the chief executive of AutoDesk, a sleepy little software company that she transformed into one of the fastest-growing, most profitable companies in the software space, even amid the post-2000 crash. Want some numbers? She took AutoDesk from a couple hundred million dollars in sales to $1.5 billion during her fourteen-year tenure, and profits rose from $47 million in 2003 to $315 million when she voluntarily stepped down three years later.

Bartz is incredibly respected and tapped into the high tech scene with board seats on Cisco Systems, Intel and NetApp. She was also on President Bill Clinton’s Science & Technology Council."

But anyone can look at the CV and truth be told, it doesn't tell you much about Bartz as a leader, which is what Yahoo needs more than anything right now. We all can name CEOs who appeared to be geniuses, but subsequently fell from grace when the going got tough. Maybe the company was just hitting a tailwind; maybe she was surrounded by a great staff; maybe she was in the right job at the right time and it made her look good.

Nope. In this case, it's at least a good percentage Bartz.

I covered AutoDesk for BusinessWeek, and watched as the company sprung from obscurity based not on being the sexy technology of the day, but on strong operating results and stock appreciation. I did the exclusive interview with her for the magazine when she retired-- a shock and disappointment to nearly everyone at the time.

That day, we met at a Starbucks by her house and when I showed up she was wearing jeans and a baseball cap and deep in conversation with someone I didn't know. I didn't pry but it was clearly something emotional and personal. She saw me walk up and told me quickly and politely she'd be with me in a minute, then turned her total attention on this friend for another five-to-ten minutes. When we joined me at my table, she apologized saying she'd just ran into the friend by happenstance, and then breezily asked what I wanted to talk about.

Her manner was as unadorned as her outfit. In fact, she'd planned on dressing up in a nice suit, but that morning her daughter was in the throws of teen angst and Bartz said she just needed to "hang with her" rather than using her time to put on the CEO-facade of suit, coiffed hair, sensible-but-feminine-shoes and makeup. There were no talking points, certainly no PR chaperones, and she answered nearly every question I put to her, even the uncomfortable ones. Well, everything except what she was doing next, and whether she might wind up in another CEO slot one day. If it was an act, it was a brilliant act.

In ten years of being a reporter, I found her unlike any other tech CEO at that level, especially highly-guarded female CEOs like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. She's not veneered. She's unafraid to talk about her role in the industry as a woman. She says something conclusive when she speaks, not a lukewarm point to please everyone. She gets tech, has a backbone, and most important, is a leader who pumps people up. 

But don't take this to mean she's some cheerleading softy. It's easy to find disgruntled ex-employees, because she is tough and demanding. But inside the company she also had that cult-like status of Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison, where employees would say to newbies, "Have you met Carol yet?" "Have you heard her speak?" Just a few months ago, I ran into an Autodesk employee who lamented she'd gotten there just as Bartz was stepping down. She said there was palpable excitement that was missing once she left. Bartz knows how to inspire people. Unlike Jerry Yang-- by his own admission-- she's a born CEO. (And I actually mean that as a compliment in this case; I don't always!)

Critics point out that she doesn't know the Web. First off, I don't think she knew CAD software before joining AutoDesk either and that turned out OK. Second, I'm not sure Yahoo's past senior management got where the Web was going. They were frequently criticized for not being able to clearly articulate any kind of clear vision. Third, Yahoo doesn't need a Web expert right now, it needs a leader who can steer through 2009 and keep the company in one piece, get Wall Street off its back, and reignite the staff. It's the reality of Yahoo's situation, that "getting the Web" is more of a nice-to-have than a must-have, right now.

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I lived through the evolution of AutoCad, the main Autodesk product, for the last 13 years. Its now the lowest quality its been in a long time. Its stability and speed are now very average due to the version releases every year that the programmers cannot keep up with. I think she rode a wave that is gone now.

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