My geek CEO was fired. If you’re wondering whether she deserved it, or Yahoo! is better off for it, or Roy Bostock is a doofus or dorfus, I don’t really know.* But I do have a personal story about Carol Bartz that’s indicative of the kind of CEO she was and the kind of person she is, perfect for Ada Lovelace day, a day to blog about women in science and technology who inspire you.
In May 2010, my wife Lauren was diagnosed with breast cancer. On Sunday, May 9, 2010—Mother’s Day no less—I received a phone call. “Hello?,” I said. “Hi, this is Carol Bartz,” she said. “Wow!,” I couldn’t help saying. I had never spoken to her before. She proceeded to say how sorry she was for me and Lauren, to reassure us, to ask me questions, and to answer mine.
More than a year, multiple surgeries, and six chemo sessions later, I’m happy to say that Lauren is past the worst part of the treatment and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, cancer free. At the time, we were frightened, bewildered, and angry. To me, the most overwhelming feeling was disbelief. Was this really happening to us? It was surreal. Lauren’s strength and sheer will to keep our home life as normal as possible, and her ability to turn the ordeal into a positive is amazing and helped me cope. That my mom and Lauren’s mom went through the same thing also helped. The more we looked into it the more we realized breast cancer was everywhere—shockingly common even at Lauren’s age. (Especially in New Jersey, one of only five states in the top tier for both incidence of and mortality from breast cancer.) The calls to increase the age of first mammogram border on criminal. One silver lining for Lauren has been meeting the amazing support community of breast cancer sufferers, survivors, and their friends. They have inspired her to give back in many ways. My mom, a radiologist and ACR fellow, was herself inspired to specialize in mammography and pursue breast cancer research.
It turns out, Carol Bartz is a survivor herself and, in addition to being one of the fifty most powerful women in business, is just another member of the breast cancer support community who cares deeply. Carol had over twelve thousand employees. To take the time to call one of them on a holiday weekend to address personal problems and pain shows the kind of leader she is. (And shows the kind of bosses Preston and Prabhakar are, who thought enough to bring it to her attention.) It’s a “Yahoo! moment” and a Carol moment that I remember vividly and continues to stick out in my mind. I suspect most stereotypes of corporate and public leaders as conniving powermad ladder climbers are just that: stereotypes. But still, I’m convinced that not all—probably few—CEOs would do what Carol Bartz did. Goodbye, good luck, and, most of all: Thanks, Carol.
* I will say that I respect Carol’s willingness give her blunt assessment of the board, possibly risking $10 million to do so, and to come right out and say “I was fired” rather than hide behind “more time with family” cliches. I’m not surprised that the board gave their full confidence to her in public just two months before firing her—of course a board always has to say that they have confidence in their current CEO. I am surprised and dismayed that, at least judging by her reaction, it seems the board was also giving their confidence to her in private. That’s HR 101: No one who’s fired should be surprised.