New York Times

Carol Bartz: Imagining a World Without Annual Reviews

Carol Bartz, C.E.O. of Yahoo since January, previously led Autodesk, the software maker. She says immediate feedback is vital for workers and calls the annual review process "antiquated."

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Carol Bartz, C.E.O. of Yahoo since January, previously led Autodesk, the software maker. She says immediate feedback is vital for workers and calls the annual review process "antiquated."

Published: October 18, 2009

This interview with Carol Bartz, chief executive of Yahoo, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody's boss?

A. I became a sales manager at Digital Equipment, promoted from within the sales team. My peers were less than excited that I had gotten the job, especially one of my male peers who said he just wasn't going to work for a woman. I said, "Well, where are you going to work?" That was the first time I realized I'd better have some guts here.

Q. Then what happened?

A. Well, he got in line, and then we were fine. I guess he thought he could just bully his way in there. Times were a little different in the '70s. I think he was shocked that a female got the job.

Q. Did you have ideas on how you would manage?

A. I guess, having been managed, you say: "This is how I think I'd manage. I wouldn't do this; I wouldn't do that." Much easier, by the way, in theory than it is in reality. Managing is a tough job. When you're young, you just think it's a natural progression - I'm good at this so I'm going to be good at that, and it's not that way at all.

Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you've learned?

A. I grew up in the Midwest. My mom died when I was 8, so my grandmother raised my brother and me. She had a great sense of humor, and she never really let things get to her.

My favorite story is when we were on a farm in Wisconsin; I would have probably been 13. There was a snake up in the rafter of the machine shed. And we ran and said, "Grandma, there's a snake." And she came out and she knocked it down with a shovel, chopped its head off and said, "You could have done that." And, you know, that's the tone she set. Just get it done. Just do it. Pick yourself up. Move on. Laugh.

Q. What about leading others?

A. A lot of it is just picking the right team and just picking people so much better than you are, and involving them in a decision. Everybody on my team - I couldn't do their jobs. I could not. I really mean that. So I figured out early on that the way you're successful is you hire really successful people.

Q. What else have you learned to do?

A. I have a bad habit - you get half your question out and I think I know the whole question, so I want to answer it. And so I actually had to be trained to take a breath. I really want to listen. I want to engage, but I have to shut up. You can see I'm a talker.

I also ask simple questions, like "How am I doing? What should I do differently?" At first, people are shocked when you ask them that. They won't answer right away because they actually don't think you're genuine about it, so you have to kind of keep probing and make it safe. They eventually will come around and say, "Well, just this."

Q. And how do you give feedback?

A. I have the puppy theory. When the puppy pees on the carpet, you say something right then because you don't say six months later, "Remember that day, January 12th, when you peed on the carpet?" That doesn't make any sense. "This is what's on my mind. This is quick feedback." And then I'm on to the next thing.

If I had my way I wouldn't do annual reviews, if I felt that everybody would be more honest about positive and negative feedback along the way. I think the annual review process is so antiquated. I almost would rather ask each employee to tell us if they've had a meaningful conversation with their manager this quarter. Yes or no. And if they say no, they ought to have one. I don't even need to know what it is. But if you viewed it as meaningful, then that's all that counts.

Q. How would you say your leadership style has changed over time?

A. I'm calmer. I think that just comes with confidence. I would hate to describe the C.E.O. I was in '92. I think I was pretty pathetic, actually.

Q. Why?

A. Well, I thought it was such a big responsibility. I had public shareholders and I had a board and this is one step you take that's a pretty big step. There's a progression in management. The first step you take is when you're a people manager, and then the next step is when you're a manager of managers. And then there's that step when you are on top. And who are you going to complain to now? Because everybody likes to complain to their boss, or their peers.

I think the biggest steps in that progression of a manager are the first and the last. The last because if it's a public company, you say: "Wait a minute. I have shareholders. I have a board. I have press. I have all these things to juggle and I'm supposed to run this company. And how do I set my time and how perfect do I have to be?" You get that weight of the world on your shoulders and so I think you overreach. I thought I had to know answers that I didn't have to know. I thought I had to be the biggest cheerleader, and so it just saps a lot of energy out of you because you're the person that has to be up and on. It's just a big responsibility.

And then you settle in over time. So I made some people mistakes - like I tried too hard with some people who should have gone earlier. You just make a lot of mistakes that you probably know in your gut are mistakes, but you're not sure how to twist the organization around. You're just not as confident. It's that simple. So I actually wouldn't have liked working for myself back then.

Q. You came out of retirement to run Yahoo.

A. I was so bored when I retired that I lost that whole section of my life. I mean I could keep reading, but I missed that whole people interaction. I'm somebody who loves politics - I mean politics in the company, as in, how do you help and enable people to get along? It's not a dirty word. It's how you organize. People say, "Oh, we don't have politics." Everybody has politics. And so be an expert at it. Figure out how to influence people to get things done, as opposed to running and ratting on them.

Q. What's your best career advice?

A. You need to build your career not as a ladder, but as a pyramid. You need to have a base of experience because it's a much more stable structure. And so that involves taking lateral moves. And it involves getting out of your comfort zone.

Q. How do you hire?

A. I'm assuming that the people that get to me know their business. But what kind of person are you? Can I stand to have dinner with you? How did you tackle your problems? How does the person think? How do they act? Will they take a little humor? I'm looking for a personality fit. I use humor in my management. I can't take a person who gets offended by every little thing I say. I always have dinner with them because I want to find out if I'm thinking, after that first glass of wine, how can I get out of here? I have to be able to make it through a dinner.

Q. So what are the red flags?

A. Boring. Too buttoned up. It's like you're saying, "O.K., who is under there? How long is it going to take me to find out who you are?" I'm a good listener. I'm good at asking questions.

Q. What should business schools teach more of, or less of?

A. I think there ought to be some classes for people to get more philosophical about who they are and what motivates them, and therefore why they act like they act.

Some of the most fantastic training I've had over the years is the tests and the feedback I've gotten on what drives me as a person, and to sort of face up to it. What's important to me and therefore why would I make certain decisions? For instance, I grew up dirt poor. I am constantly in fear of being poor. I'm so far from being poor, it's crazy, but I'm constantly in fear of being poor. And I know that drives a lot.

Now you could say the dark side of that is maybe that would drive me to make risky decisions that I shouldn't make. It actually drives me the other way. It drives me to be more conservative, so I've had to teach myself to get out of that conservative zone.

It also turns out that I'm an introvert. You would not believe that, would you? And I know I am because introverts have to refuel by being alone. Extroverts - Bill Clinton's a famous extrovert - have to go to a party. At the end of the day, he comes home tired, and he wants to party. I come home. I suck my thumb and don't talk to me. I learned how to get down time. Even an hour by myself feeds me.

What motivates you? What are you scared of? Knowing that will help inform how you lead, how you make choices, how you face the day. And I don't think we do enough of that.

Q. What else?

A. I also think people should understand that they will learn more from a bad manager than a good manager. They tend to get into a cycle where they're so frustrated that they aren't paying attention actually to what's happening to them. When you have a good manager things go so well that you don't even know why it's going well because it just feels fine.

When you have a bad manager you have to look at what's irritating you and say: "Would I do that? Would I make those choices? Would I talk to me that way? How would I do this?"

When people come to me and say, "I can't work for so-and-so anymore," I say, "Well, what have you learned from so-and-so?" People want to take a bad situation and say, "Oh, it's bad." No, no. You have to deal with what you're dealt. Otherwise you're going to run from something and not to something. And you should never run from something.

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