In making one blunt statement, “I’ve just been fired,” former Yahoo CEO Carol A. Bartz has likely re-written the rules for successfully managing a change in corporate protocol and leadership.
In a move that should send shockwaves to anyone involved in crisis management and strategic communications, Ms. Bartz blasted an email to Yahoo’s 13,400 employees shortly after she got the axe.
As the story was reported, this bizarre episode began to unfold when Yahoo board chairman, Roy Bostock, called Ms. Bartz and told her she was fired while she was on vacation on the East Coast, flying from Maine to New York.
Yahoo, a company already under fire on Wall Street for losing its way in the Internet space and underperforming financially, made numerous serious missteps in this process.
First, even if the CEO expects it, being fired by telephone is poor policy. Likely, this is a case of an out-of-control board that does not respect its CEO and, concurrently, does not value effective communications management. I would be hard-pressed to believe that any senior communications executive would agree with Yahoo’s strategy.
Where were the company’s lawyers in all this? It’s obvious that Ms. Bartz had a contract, and when contracts are going to be dissolved, skilled lawyers guide the process, non-disparagement clauses get written, and press releases approved by both sides are generated. There should be no substitute for this process.
It’s also astonishing that Ms. Bartz was allowed to send her email. Any company the size of Yahoo, even one that is dysfunctional, has an MIS director who can instantly delete anyone from the email system, thereby preventing widespread distribution of an email like the one that Ms. Bartz authored.
Not taking control of the technology before she was fired was a critical error. When it comes to controlling communications, no employee – from the custodian to the CEO - should have an opportunity to send emails from the corporate server after they have been terminated. Instant communications has changed the rules.
Clearly, Ms. Bartz had a rocky tenure at Yahoo. Didn’t anyone on the board consider that the reportedly high-strung CEO would do something dramatic?
Some have argued that Ms. Bartz is a pioneer in that she told the truth and didn’t fall in line with the “corporate-speak” that accompanies most CEO dismissals. Others have said her action provides increased transparency and insight into how corporate America’s upper echelons really operate.
In a statement in The New York Times, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor in organizational behavior, says, “The truth helps you improve. When people lose their jobs and there’s no acknowledgement, the potential for learning is lost…Ms. Bartz’s comments also served her own cause. She’s acting as if this is not her fault. She’s controlling the message.”
Homa Bahrami, a senior lecturer at Berkeley, said in published reports, “I would say this is going to become much more of a trend…the chief executive picks up the phone and tells the investors exactly what happened.”
I believe this is academic nonsense.
It’s no secret that Ms. Bartz and the board did not see eye-to-eye during her nearly two years at the helm. In fact, in an interview with Fortune magazine, Ms. Bartz described Yahoo’s board members as “doofuses.”
That is no excuse for what I believe is reckless behavior. While her actions may seem in vogue and fit her shoot-from-the-hip style, they have further damaged Yahoo’s reputation and negatively impacted the stock. That translates into real value taken out of investors’ pockets.
It appears that Ms. Bartz never fully grasped that a publicly-traded company is owned by the “stockholders,” not the CEO or its senior management. What about her fiduciary responsibility to investors? That responsibility includes how and when she communicates, not just matters involving the balance sheet.
Want proof that Ms. Bartz’s actions were selfish and misguided?
Just three days after her email blast, Daniel Loeb, a prominent hedge fund manager, revealed that he had become one of the company’s largest shareholders and called for a major board shakeup. Reports have now surfaced that an investment bank was retained to brief the board on various scenarios that could break up the company or put it up for sale.
As a result, the people on the board who are charged with trying to save the company are under even more intense scrutiny. How could anyone argue that this is helpful to shareholders?
This messy and unpleasant episode should put senior communications counselors on notice that the rules are changing when it comes executive departures. For the most part, CEO departures have been “sugar-coated” in how they are communicated. Either the CEO resigns, talks about spending more time with the family, or states that he/she is stepping aside to assure a smooth transition.
Email, the Internet, and social networking have their upsides. In fact, an entire new industry has been created to aid and expand the communications process. But there’s also a downside that should be addressed.
A company can inform and engage its employees through blast emails and social networking in an organized and controlled fashion, but that does not prevent a rogue employee, even a CEO, from turning the tables and embarrassing the board, thus causing concern in the marketplace and potential harm to the organization.
In-house public relations executives and outside counselors need to design and implement stronger contingency communications plans with their bosses and clients. When it comes to change in upper management, every possibility should be considered…including detaching the deposed executive from the corporate email system before it’s too late. No more courtesies to shoot off emails to former colleagues and wish them well.
In the end, part of being a CEO is knowing how to act professionally, both in good times and bad. It will be interesting to see where Ms. Bartz finds herself. I’m betting that no major corporation will want her as “captain” of their ship.
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Richard E. Nicolazzo is managing partner of Nicolazzo & Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Mass.
Joe M. Grillo, a partner at N&A, contributed to this blog.