Maybe Yahoo just can't be fixed

Executive exodus, finger-pointing may be obscuring grim reality

For those of you who enjoy huge helpings of schadenfreude, I urge you to check out the latest exclusives on the turmoil at Yahoo from All Things Digital's Kara Swisher. The executive exodus continues, and Swisher giddily analyzes the meltdown.

What's happening at Yahoo is some kind of ugly. Heads are rolling, people are fleeing, knives are being plunged into the backs of the departed, lame spin is being spun. It's almost as entertaining as Jersey Shore!

Swisher seems to be loving it, in large part -- and this seems quite clear -- because she apparently can't stand Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz. Now, Bartz certainly hasn't helped herself, having affixed a large bulls-eye on her own back by 1) engaging in no small amount of bluster since taking on the job in January 2009, and 2) running around lately saying a lot of stupid things (see here and here), and 3) not delivering on her promise to refocus Yahoo's business strategy, streamline the organization or meaningfully grow revenue (not to mention share price). It's fair to say that the pressure appears to be getting to Bartz.

But for all the criticisms of Bartz -- much of which appear to be deserved, based on Yahoo's performance during her tenure -- here's the truth: Sometimes companies lose their focus, their direction, their mojo -- whatever you want to call it -- and it just can't be fixed, by anybody.

And sometimes they just get beat by better competitors. Remember AltaVista? Great search engine in its day, which was in the late '90s. Wall Street was looking forward to the inevitable moonshot IPO. What happened to AltaVista? Simple: Google came along, and it was superior. End of story. It doesn't matter who did what at AltaVista; it flat out got its lunch handed to it by Google.

In my opinion, that's the story with Yahoo. Yes, we can point to dozens of competitive and personnel mistakes the company made over the past decade. Jerry Yang was in over his head. Terry Semel didn't know what he was doing. Whatever. But the bottom line is that by the time Carol Bartz came along less than two years ago, Yahoo was in big trouble, an unfocused mess, no longer one of the Internet cool kids. That's why Bartz was brought in. Was she the right choice? She doesn't appear to have been, based on what we've seen so far. Would anyone else have been the right choice? I don't know; it's all speculation, isn't it?

But Bartz certainly talked a big game, and that's one of the reasons she's getting a lot of blowback now from the media.

This industry is full of people with supreme self-confidence who claim they can do better than this person or that person. Then, when they're finally handed the reins and realize they can't fix things overnight, or not at all, they blame others. They abuse and fire underlings. They lash out at the media. They get defensive. And then they're handed a nice golden parachute when they get fired -- I mean, when they resign to "spend more time with their family."

Here's another thing: A lot of CEOs are incompetent. Just ask a VC. Many got where they are not through talent, but through luck and connections. But once they get to put a CEO title on their resume, they're in the club, so it's assumed they're competent and talented. It's assumed they know what they're doing. Thus they got other lucrative offers and opportunities.

I'm not saying Bartz is incompetent, and I'm also certainly not defending her. I honestly don't care about her one way or another. She's just another highly paid executive to me, someone who's in the middle of an ugly, public fight from which she'll eventually walk away with a few million dollars to salve her wounded pride. And then she'll write a book.

And the Yahoo mess will be waiting there for someone else to come in and not fix. Then we get to do this all over again.

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