Yahoo chairman Roy Bostock fired CEO Carol Bartz this week. That is big news, but CEO transitions happen all the time. What made this bigger news is that Mr. Bostock fired Ms. Bartz over the phone.
This fact was disclosed by Ms. Bartz shortly after the call on Tuesday, when she sent the following message to Yahoo employees:
I am very sad to tell you that Iâ€™ve just been fired over the phone by Yahooâ€™s Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward.
Sent from my iPad
Now Ms. Bartz had a rough tenure at Yahoo, taking the CEO job after Yahoo had rejected a takeover offer from Microsoft that looks awfully good right now.
But this morning the New York Times is on the case with an article that raises questions:
Was she a pioneer trying to provide more transparency and authenticity at the top ranks of prominent companies, or was her salvo an unprofessional tirade that was a personal and professional mistake?
While the Times quotes Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who supports this rare case of CEO candor, they also get this observation out of Jennifer Chatman, a professor at crosstown rival Cal Berkeley:
A chief executive who was thinking first about the long-term interests of her company would not have done this,â€ Ms. Chatman said, adding that there are problems of perception in this case as well: â€œSheâ€™s one of a handful of top female business leaders. It would be easy to attach this to a stereotype of women leaders as not in control of their emotions.
I about fell off my chair when I read this. I knew about Ms. Bartz’s terse email, but learned later in the article by reporter David Streitfeld one more nugget to the story that I had not seen thusfar:
Ms. Bartz was on vacation on the East Coast, flying from Maine to New York, when she got the call from Yahooâ€™s chairman, Roy Bostock, relieving her of her duties.
I think the email sent by Ms. Bartz is understandable (perhaps even laudable) under the circumstances. We have all seen (or even drafted) the “pursue other interests” statement when a senior executive departs a company. In this case, she is on vacation, perhaps trying to find a WiFi hotspot in some random airport lounge.
(Update, 11 am EST: Ms. Bartz strikes back through an interview with Fortune. The gloves are coming off…).
The larger issue to me is this: why did Mr. Bostock fire Ms. Bartz over the phone? To focus on what Ms. Bartz said to Yahoo staff before IT locked down her email misses the point: you don’t do this. HR 101 is well known to all executives: you fire an employee in person, preferably with the direct supervisor giving the bad news.
In this context, to me Professor Chatman’s insinuation that Ms. Bartz acted unprofessionally is off the mark. Further, to highlight the emotional nature of the situation and link that to Ms. Bartz’s status as a female CEO seems unfair in this case. Her email is truthful, sincere, and actually a bit poignant. It was not a “tirade.”
By all reports Ms. Bartz is a direct, demanding, and at times even profane CEO. Those characteristics are often lauded in male CEOs. She is also a cancer survivor, so she’s seen worse than this.
I can think of a few exigent circumstances that may be the exception to the fire-in-person rule, but I don’t see those applying at all here. As recently as three weeks ago, Mr. Bostock had voiced support of Ms. Bartz.
Right now many employees at Yahoo might be thinking: if they would fire the CEO this way, how will they fire me?
What do you suppose this series of events does for the CEO search Yahoo is commencing?
The Yahoo press release that announces this “Leadership Reorganization” thanks Ms. Bartz “… for her service to Yahoo! during a critical time of transition in the Company’s history…” also notes that founders Jerry Yang and David Filo will each continue as “Chief Yahoo.” I think they forgot to add the chairman to that list.