Two short-term, high-profile Bay Area leaders were kicked to the curb recently, but the manner of their respective departures couldn't have been more different, and I find them both fascinating counter-examples.
Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz was fired abruptly by the company's board--actually via a phone call from the chairman--and the following day she spoke freely with Fortune's Patricia Sellers:
Here is what Carol Bartz thinks of the Yahoo board that fired her: "These people f---ed me over," she says, in her first interview since her dismissal from the CEO role late Tuesday...
"The board was so spooked by being cast as the worst board in the country," Bartz says. "Now they're trying to show that they're not the doofuses that they are."
It's noteworthy that Bartz's contract had a non-disparagement clause, and she was apparently owed $10 million; I assume Bartz knew exactly what she was doing, and it was a deliberate choice to sacrifice that compensation (or at least put it at risk) in order to speak her mind without constraints.
Just over a week later, the San Francisco Giants announced that managing general partner Bill Neukom will become "chairman emeritus" next year and will sell his ownership stake, a move apparently forced by the team's primary owners. Neukom will be replaced by team President Larry Baer, and the two stuck to the script at yesterday's news conference, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle's Gwen Knapp:
Neukom repeatedly ducked the issue of whether he had been shoved aside with variations on "mistakes were made," the fingerprint wiper favored by politicians.
When asked the question directly on Thursday, Neukom began his reply with "Umm" and a pause before he went into a long-winded explanation about his plans to step aside in the near future and saying that, after consultation with the other investors, "I think the conclusion was that this was the right time to turn the reins over to Larry."
CSNBayArea's Mychael Urban offered a similar perspective:
Neukom neither admitted nor denied reports of communication issues with the other owners, describing their dialogue over his three-year tenure as "robust."
Asked if he was forced out, Neukom said, "I don't think that's the right characterization at all."
I'll let others debate the merits of these decisions by senior management; what interests me at the moment are the choices made by Bartz and Neukom at the moment of their departure. The two clearly are very different people who had very different relationships with their organizations. Bartz is well-known as a straight-talking, f-bomb-dropping leader, while Neukom is a tight-lipped, bow-tie-wearing corporate attorney, and both of them held true to form. Bartz was hired to turn Yahoo around just 32 months ago, and there's no indication that the company holds any unique meaning for her. In contrast, Neukom was a 16-year-old in San Mateo when the Giants moved West in 1958, and he's owned a stake in the team since 1995; it seems reasonable to assume that running the team fulfilled an important and long-held ambition of his.
So it's not surprising that Bartz and Neukom chose to leave as they did. But each of their choices seems flawed to me, and I believe that both of them could benefit by learning something from the other. While I respect Bartz's determination to speak her mind--all the more because of the shit she has undoubtedly had to deal with as a woman in technology--and I find her brash style personally appealing, I still felt dismayed when I read her interview with Sellars. Bartz's justifiable anger at the manner of her firing seemed to trump all other concerns, and while Yahoo's board should be criticized for their mishandling of this transition, Bartz's clumsy remarks rebounded against her and made the board's public silence look (undeservedly) dignified and thoughtful in comparison.
Neukom's approach couldn't have been more different. Instead of burning bridges, he sat side-by-side with his successor, tamped down his emotions, and denied that anything was amiss. (At least he didn't say he wanted to spend more time with his family.) But while I understand Neukom's desire to make a graceful exit and avoid damaging an organization he no doubt loves, his adamant refusal to acknowledge reality undermined both him and the team. Neukom's discretion could be characterized as "taking the high road," but I see it as a way of avoiding responsibility--if nothing's wrong, then no mistakes were made--and it merely invites speculation about senior management's dysfunction.
Bartz's resolve to speak her truth and damn the consequences and Neukom's superhuman powers of self-regulation have undoubtedly fueled their careers and contributed mightily to their success. But I'm reminded that our greatest weaknesses are overused strengths.