Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz gets fired by phone, gets real by email


Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz was fired over the phone by Yahoo!’s board on Tuesday. (Tony Avelar/BLOOMBERG)

That’s not something you ever hear from the CEO of a major corporation. CEOs don’t get fired. And they certainly don’t send out emails to everyone to let them know the board didn’t do the work face to face. They resign—preemptively, or with the board’s blessing. They retire. They leave to spend time with their families. Of the 43 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index that changed CEOs in 2010, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart, just 5 percent (that’s two people) were explicitly ousted from their jobs by the board.

Bartz is known for her tough-talking, profanity-laced candor. And so it’s not that big of a surprise that when fired from her job, she fearlessly chose to tell the truth. This is a woman who lost her mother when she was eight years old. Who battled cancer and won after being diagnosed with the disease the same week she became CEO of Autodesk. Who told analysts when named CEO of Yahoo that she planned to make sure Yahoo gets "some friggin' breathing room" so the company can "kick some butt."

It didn’t, of course. Yahoo’s shares sit at $13, about the same they were when Bartz took over in early 2009. The company has lost one manager after another, writes Forbes blogger (and my former BusinessWeek colleague) Rob Hof, as technologists disillusioned by Microsoft’s virtual takeover of Yahoo’s search business led more and more of them to head to the exits. Rivals such as Google and Facebook scored bigger advertising deals.

So it’s not that remarkable that Bartz was asked to leave. What is stunning is how it apparently happened, and how revealing Bartz was in sharing the news. So much care and legal review goes into how most CEO departure press releases are worded that you’d think it was a treaty to end a war. Ego gets in the way of stating the truth.

Bartz’s straight-shooting personality surely had an impact on her decision to speak so bluntly about what happened. Yet I can’t help but think that being one of the few high-ranking women in tech had something to do with her utter lack of pretense regarding the board’s decision. Bartz had nothing to lose, including her ego, in being direct with people about what really happened. No matter what she may or may not have accomplished at Yahoo, we should give her credit for displaying honesty and a rare ability to swallow her pride. There aren’t many people running technology companies—or any firm, for that matter—for whom you can say that.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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