Business Brains

Icon | Carol Bartz, former CEO, Autodesk and Yahoo!

Icon | Carol Bartz, former CEO, Autodesk and Yahoo!

Posting in Finance

Decisive or divisive? With her direct and disciplined management style, she is often a bit of both.

Carol Bartz isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Then again, what else would you expect from a Wisconsin farm girl?

A dozen garden boxes brimming with 20 heirloom tomato varieties, peppers, squash and eggplant are begging for her attention outside in the Northern California sunshine. But Bartz has carved out 50 minutes or so for our phone interview after I tracked down her assistant through Cisco, where she is the lead director.

Those vegetables, along with the recalcitrant orchids she also raises as a hobby, are a perennial fixture across the four-acre estate in Atherton, where she put down roots with her husband Bill Marr (a former Digital Equipment and Sun Microsystems executive) close to 20 years ago.

Horticultural pursuits have helped Bartz stay grounded throughout high-profile CEO stints during which she has brought process and discipline to two very different high-tech companies, design software developer Autodesk and Internet services giant Yahoo! As many days as possible, after a schedule packed with meetings and investor presentations, Bartz would peel off her brightly colored power suit or cardigan ensemble, doff the bold rings adorning her expressive fingers, toss back her signature blonde blowout and commune with the plants.

"There were periods when the garden didn't look as good. I wasn't, perhaps, as fussy," she says. "But, once you get it in, that's the big job. Then you can choose to let it look like a mess until harvest. It was always nice after a hard day or a hard week to go out there for an hour by myself and dig in the dirt."

Not afraid to prune

As a manager, Bartz demonstrates a parallel talent for pruning unnecessary steps out of product development processes, cultivating the skills of promising new managers and weeding out employees that might choke potential growth.

In her first all-hands meeting at Autodesk -- where she grew the company's revenue from $285 million to $1.5 billion over a 14-year tenure -- Bartz asked one executive to leave before the end of her first all-hands meeting, according to insiders. At Yahoo!, Bartz spent her first days in listening sessions with as many people as possible. It took her four days to realize most employees wandered into those meetings at least 20 minutes late and one e-mail to institute a new policy of starting on time. Within five months, she had overhauled the organizational structure and axed 675 employees (about 5 percent of the workforce).

Bartz's motto as a manager is what she calls the "3Fs": Fail. Fast. Forward.

"Accept failure and learn from it," she told graduating seniors during a well-received May 2012 commencement speech at her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Failure, especially in your 50 years of working, failure is so important to understand, how it can progress you forward. Everybody has failures of many kinds, but how do you take advantage of failure? I think the greatest strength that we have in the U.S. and especially in Silicon Valley is that we actually view failure as a sign of experience. We view failure as a way of life, and those people are willing to take risks on the road to innovation."

While she brought that mindset to both Autodesk and Yahoo!, Bartz had far less time at the latter company to define and refine her strategy. "Because of such open media, everything was interpreted on an hourly basis, or maybe misinterpreted might be the way to put it. It was much easier to develop a plan at Autodesk and actually see it through, and/or make mistakes and try things, and so forth, than it is in the glare of today's style," she says. It became a standing joke to see how fast her weekly e-mail updates would wind up in the hands of reporters. The record was about two minutes.

When Bartz was unceremoniously fired via cell phone by the Yahoo! chairman two-and-a-half years into her assignment, she used the media maelstrom to her advantage. Given the opportunity to save face by resigning, she first alerted her husband Bill and her children (a son and two daughters) and then came clean in a terse e-mail to all 14,000 employees: "To all, I am very sad to tell you that I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo!'s Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish all of you only the best going forward. Carol." That e-mail leaked to the press, just as Bartz had anticipated.

I ask Bartz if she was given enough time to clean up the organizational mess she inherited at Yahoo! She answers without hesitation: "Absolutely not. From the beginning, if you look at any of the transcripts from earnings calls, whatever, I consistently said it was going to take time. That [the plan] was going to take revenue out before we could start growing, because we had revenue in there from businesses that we didn't want to be in. That we were going to have to revamp the technology. I was brutally honest about that."

Management in the moment

No one could ever accuse Bartz, 64, of failing to speak her mind, a trait she inherited from the grandmother who raised her from age 12 on a dairy farm in the small town of Alma, Wis. Carol and her younger brother, Jim, moved there from Minnesota several years after the loss of their young mother, after it became clear that their father couldn't handle the stress of single fatherhood.

"I call it more plain-spoken," she demurs, when I use the word "direct" to describe her communications style. "I'm not trying to obfuscate, this is just what I think. If you give somebody your position, they have a chance to do something about your position, like talk you out of that position, alter it somehow. Or they can agree to it, because they know what it is. If you are constantly shifting, if you don't know what the position is, I don't know how anybody gets anything done."

Despite her love of well-defined business processes, Bartz has never been a fan of formal mentorship programs or checkbox-style employee reviews. She prefers concise, consistent feedback given on the spot and in the moment. "What I tell people is, see what somebody else has done that you like and don't like. Because the 'don't like' is just as important. Someone might say, 'I would never swear in the workplace like Carol does.' Well, so good, that's something you don't like, so don't do it. Out of that comes what I call the mosaic of who you are."

Resisting chronic discouragement

This is my third lengthy interview with Bartz over the past 20 years, and we revisit an issue that she says has changed little over that time: the disappointingly small number of high-ranking female executives in the Fortune 500. "It's just as hard to move up the ranks," she says. "There's various amounts of discouragement, which is a word that we should pay more attention to. It's one thing to be out-and-out discriminated [against], it's another thing to face constant discouragement, as opposed to lack of encouragement. You can encourage, you can not encourage and you can discourage."

Much of that discouragement is subtle. When women face a new risk or opportunity, often those closest to them -- their friends and family -- are the first to throw up doubts or objections. Although most of those confidants mean well, this rarely happens to men moving up the ranks, Bartz observes. Other signals are more overt. She recalls a recent meeting where she offered an idea, which was ignored. Minutes later, when the same topic was introduced by a male counterpart, it was greeted with enthusiasm. She chose to point out the slight publicly. "I've earned the right to be a little bit more cranky about some of this stuff. It's up to me to speak up," she laughs, remarking that a 25-year-old woman in the same position might not have that luxury.

"Before you lean, you have stand," she adds conspiratorially, a back-handed reference to the best-selling advice book, Lean In, published earlier this year by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Bartz's own climb has been anything but easy. The straight-A student and homecoming queen took a job at a local bank at age 15 to help her grandparents with living expenses. She earned a scholarship to an all-women's university in Missouri, William Woods College, but switched to the University of Wisconsin in order to take computer science classes. To pay for it, she talked her way into a job as a miniskirt-wearing cocktail waitress, opting out of the night computer operator position that was her other option -- even though she didn't know a whiskey-and-seven from a vodka tonic. "Man, was I in over my head," she recalls. "So I kept the bartender on my side."

After earning her bachelor's degree in Computer Science in 1971, Bartz held marketing and sales positions with 3M and Digital Equipment before being recruited to Sun Microsystems in 1983. Nine years later, she was named CEO and chairman of Autodesk, the first female to be brought in from the outside to run a major high-tech company. The day after she started, she was diagnosed with breast cancer (something else she shares with her grandmother). She could have neglected her new role, but instead she dug in deeper and went public with her illness -- something that wasn't "done" in the early 1990s.

"Having cancer is a scary thing, there's no doubt about it," Bartz recalls. "It takes a good three or four years just to get rid of the basic fear. I'm not going to minimize the impact of cancer on a person and their families and friends. But I didn't say, 'Gosh, I should stay home and garden more.' In fact, if anything, keeping busy is what got me through it."

Lifelong learning

Aside from gardening and her lead director role at Cisco, much of Bartz's time these days is devoted to quietly volunteering for various organizations with a focus on cancer support, battered teenage mothers and technical education for young girls, "making sure they don't lose interest in fourth grade, which is what happens."

She doesn't rule out the idea of taking on another position; the morning of our interview, in fact, she shared coffee with someone seeking advice. "One of the things that I believe in is lifelong learning, which means you are just constantly interested in something and you are curious," she says.

That's a trait she shares with her grandmother, the kind of woman who bought a treadmill at age 92 because she couldn’t walk outside in the Minnesota winter.

But Bartz isn't actively looking, and chances are she wouldn't settle for a small company nor one simply looking for someone to water or fertilize an already well-tilled crop. Besides, Bartz is about to get a great new project into which to channel her seemingly boundless energy: her first grandchild is due in August, and she's ready to take on her new job title.

Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure