Yahoo's famously truculent CEO Carol Bartz receives a lot of ribbing about her company's lackluster performance. But tell that to her face and she'll advise you to "go fuck yourself." So what's it like working under someone like that?
Nilofer Merchant, who was hired and fired by Bartz in a span of 18 months, tells the Harvard Business Review her story. It's not entirely what you might expect.
The two worked together when Bartz was CEO of Autodesk and Merchant ran internal operations at Autodesk's Americas unit. "Even then, she had a reputation for being an ass-kicking executive who could handle any situation," notes Merchant.
"The morning typically started with a 7:00 am call from Carol that almost always began with, 'WTF is wrong with XXX'?!" she said.
You'd think a column about getting sacked by Carol Bartz would be bitter and self-serving, but Merchant's actually quite grateful for her short time with Bartz.
She describes being swept off her feet in their initial hiring meeting:
Convincing me took only this: "You'll be among my top leadership team, fix anything that can and will go wrong, and you can drive every new strategy to drive our market growth." It only took me an hour to decide. I was 29 years old and being asked to run a major division. A little bit of drool must have showed. A job perfectly matched to my skills. Custom created for me. By the CEO. A seriously ass-kicking CEO. Everything was perfect. The sunshine was brighter as I left the building, and I'm sure the birds sang a bit louder, too. I might have even skipped.
But the sun didn't shine for long. Merchant had a strategic disagreement with one of her associates about maintaining "existing programs while expanding." They first argued privately and then Merchant took her case to everyone in the office. "I took the argument to the end of the corridors, I lobbied others to point out the flaw in my counterpart's argument I did some spin."
The board ended up approving Merchant's approach but she didn't come away looking good.
Carol called me in for a chat. I was psyched; it was clear I was going to get the attaboy for my superheroic efforts 'cause the Board had actually applauded the presentation. And at first, it started out that way, as she pointed out that she knew what I did to get the ball over the finish line. She knew I did what it took to win. She trusted my calls, she said. She knew I would deliver. But, she pointed out, what I had also done was alienate my team. I realized I was in the wrong, but I rationalized, referring to our tight timelines. She pointed out that the way I went about winning meant that the team would not trust me the next time. And ultimately, they might not execute the plan because of the way I'd created it. And while she was right (and I secretly knew it), I kept arguing with her about the goal being the goal, and the goal being about the win. She had me fired within a week.
It's an interesting anecdote considering Bartz's reputation as a white-knuckled executive. She clearly places a premium on cooperative, self-less behavior. In the end, Merchant said her firing completely changed her philosophy on group dynamics and successful team work. She's gone on to write a book about collaboration in the corporate sector. "I suspect that I couldn't have started on that journey if Carol hadn't fired me. And for that I am glad."