Yahoo’s Bartz Should Stop the Blame Game

I’m just not seeing how Carol Bartz and her executive team have set Yahoo on a bold strategic course that breaks with the past and takes the company into a bright future.

Not everything in Michael Arrington’s denunciation of Yahoo under Bartz is on target, but his criticisms put lots of checks in the right boxes. Like Arrington, I haven’t seen anything strikingly new from Yahoo since Bartz’ ascension. If anything, the company seems to be practicing the risky alchemy of addition by subtraction: abandoning search in exchange for Microsoft advertising lucre, slashing staff, dumping properties that don’t readily fit the consumer-portal mold.

It’s true that Yahoo was unfocused, and that it needed a narrower, sharper mandate.

What’s more, some of those expenditure reductions and were necessary, especially in a harsh downturn that has taken a jagged bite out of advertising revenue. That said, costs reductions only take a company so far. They help burnish an embattled bottom line, but they do nothing to grow the business.

Ultimately, Bartz’s challenge is to grow Yahoo’s business, to boost the top line. Does she have a coherent strategic plan to get it done? At this point, I’m not seeing it.

Under Bartz, Yahoo is precisely what it was before – a web portal for consumers – but without search. She admits that Yahoo’s natural competitor, the rival that looks more like Yahoo than any other company out there, is AOL. That’s true, but it can’t be comforting news for Yahoo’s stakeholders. AOL, after all, is another portal company looking to redefine itself, squeezed on one side by search and on the other by social networking.

Bartz needs to explain what Yahoo will do that will make it different, make it unique, separate it from the pack. She needs to articulate how it will continue to drive consumers to its virtual front doors and attract the advertising revenue that follows them.

At the same time, she has to stop attacking forces she cannot control and that, frankly, do not control her. Why does she waste so much time berating press and pundits? Every time she does it, I wince. It’s a waste of energy, a waste of time; and time, as the hackneyed adage goes, is money.

The fact is, Bartz will always have critics, Yahoo will always have critics. Then again, every CEO and every company has its critics. CEOs must have thick skin. They have to be able to withstand external criticisms, to be driven by the courage of their convictions and the certitude that they’re blazing the right trail. Bartz needs to stop trying to deflect blame for Yahoo’s struggles toward its external detractors. The critics beyond Yahoo’s walls don’t control the fate of the company. She does.

Something else she needs to stop doing is blaming the past regime for the Yahoo problems she hasn’t imputed to the media. There’s no upside to continuing a jeremiad against a defunct regime. She should be looking forward, not backward. Jerry Yang and his lieutenants might have bequeathed problems to Bartz and her team, but that’s why they’re there – to solve those problems. The new team has been brought aboard to boldly and confidently chart a new course, not to endlessly bemoan the baggage they’ve inherited.

Besides being pointless, her excoriations of the past regime are culturally poisonous. In attacking Yang and the Yahoo of old, she implicitly assails those Yahoo managers and employees who were left behind and remain with the company. Rather than rallying the troops under all-encompassing banner, she risks instigating an us-against-them dynamic, whereby the new members of the company are arrayed against the holdovers.

I’ve seen this dynamic play it out in a few companies, and the results are rarely salutary. The new additions, taking their cues from a new leader who is disdainful of the former executive leadership, suppose that the vast majority of those who preceded them at the company – including the teams they’re now managing – are part of a problem rather than potential allies in a solution. The new team often treats the veterans with barely concealed condescension. At the same time, the long-time employees resent the arrogance and superiority of their new bosses. Understandably, they begin to feel that their new leaders aren’t interested in their ideas and opinions.

Bartz likes to attack the “cynicism” of her media detractors. She should consult a dictionary because he’s not using the right word. Her critics are skeptical, not cynical. Given what she’s shown us heretofore, skepticism seems the proper stance.

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