Carol Bartz on Bad Bosses, Picking Your Fights and Saying ‘I Don’t Know’

Carol Bartz is widely-known in Silicon Valley for two things: being a high-profile executive at some of the best-known technology companies, including Sun Microsystems, Autodesk and Yahoo, and being a pull-no-punches speaker who says whatever is on her mind — usually in the hardscrabble vernacular and earthy humor of her grandmother, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who raised her.

Both traits, especially the second, were on full display earlier this month when Bartz, 64, spoke before a standing-room-only “Women’s Event” at Wharton’s San Francisco Campus. Her topic: What she would tell her 30-year-old self. Judging by Bartz’s presentation, had such a conversation actually taken place, the younger Bartz would have gotten an earful.

Some examples: Bad bosses can be as instructive as good ones; don’t have too many girlfriends; and don’t be afraid to make “I don’t know” one of your favorite phrases.

Bartz first came to the public’s attention as an executive at Sun Microsystems during its glory years as a successful work station maker. (Sun never recovered after the dot com crash, and in 2010, it was acquired by Oracle.) In 1992, she became CEO of Autodesk, the world’s leading designer of software for engineers and architects; annual sales during her tenure went from $300 million to $1.5 billion. In 2009, she was tapped to run troubled Yahoo. Two years later, after a performance review by independent directors had concluded that the company “wasn’t performing as well as it could,” Yahoo’s board chairman fired her (over the phone). These days, Bartz says, she spends her time “just hanging around,” as well as serving on several corporate boards.

Many of Bartz’s comments during her San Francisco presentation involved the general topic of the way gender relations are evolving in today’s corporate world. Her observations involved a mix of good and bad news: While the situation for women in the workplace is clearly improving, much work remains to be done. Indeed, Bartz related some personal experiences that belonged more to the 1960s world of Mad Men than to the 21st century U.S. boardroom.

One of those experiences involved a well-known corporate board of which she is a senior member. During board deliberations, she said, she will often make a comment that gets little or no reaction from others on the board. A few minutes later, however, a male board member might make the same comment, and everyone will praise its insightfulness.

Given realities like those, Bartz is concerned that many young women getting their MBAs today might think that things changed more than they really have. “I feel very upset that some of the 20-somethings out there think there’s no problem,” she noted. Women in the work place still will encounter situations where their only option is to “go home, suck it down, and get up the next day and try again. I am sorry I can’t make it any better.”

Bartz also suggested that women needed to be more careful about choosing their battles than their male counterparts. “Don’t fight every fight. What happens a lot of time with women is that we get in our minds that we have to fight the fight, that we’ve climbed the peak and so we’ve got to take somebody on. And that gets a little old…. There is a time to let out your inner bitch, but really, really pick your fights. If somebody says this or that, as long as they are not grabbing you or touching you, just ignore them. Don’t fight everybody. It doesn’t help.”

Bartz said her own career as an A-level celebrity CEO who also happened to be a woman was “for the most part positive. Every event at the White House needs a skirt. I was a skirt. So I got to go to things that never in my lifetime — this little farm girl from Wisconsin — would I have been invited to… I got into situations and I got into venues because I was female, and that was an absolute advantage.”

On the brighter side of the gender issue, Bartz said that when talking with women MBA students, “I have a lot of regard for the time and effort it takes. And I can also tell you it’s a little disturbing how few females can actually” attempt to obtain an MBA. “It’s a time when there are already a lot of draws on your attention. It’s right at prime baby time. And so I’m proud of the statistics about women who come from” business schools. “I think these women are really sacrificing a lot.”

Waiting Out a Bad Boss

Bartz also touched on career issues and challenges that are faced by both men and women. A big one is the “bad boss.” While universally despised, the dreaded bad boss, said Bartz, can teach his or her unfortunate employees a great deal. “Think about the good bosses you had. You remember that they’re good, but you don’t know exactly why. But with a bad boss, you remember every detail about whatever [he or she] did. You really have it in sharp focus. Not that you should run off and be bad managers, but we often can be shaped more by some of the negative things that happen in our lives, like a bad boss. And of course I have a little bit of Silicon Valley in me, which says, ‘A bad boss will soon move on to be somebody else’s bad boss, so just wait him out.’ But if you happen to be in a business where they wait around for 10 years, then maybe you’ve got to move out first.”

In touching on issues involving work-life balance, Bartz told her listeners to avoid being hobbled by guilt, especially when children are involved. “Don’t be held hostage by your spouse, your kids, your own guilt. Guilt is the biggest sapper of energy. It can just take you to your knees because you can’t get past it. I know some people think this is bizarre, but when I was traveling, I never called home every day. If you’re in India, eleven-and-a-half hours away, you can’t be ripping yourself apart trying to figure out when someone is to be home from school. You have to be realistic and teach your children in advance that [this is] how it all works.”

But, she added, that is far from being an uninvolved parent. “When you are home, stay off the device and really be home,” said Bartz, who is married and has three grown children.

She also noted that false bravado and misplaced self-confidence should be avoided in the office. “The phrase, ‘I don’t know’ is in fact a strength. I have a bullshit detector that is really good, really good. And I love playing with people who bullshit me. I would much prefer if someone told me, ‘Not only do I not know the answer, but I wouldn’t even know how to get it. Could we talk about how, and I can get back to you?’ That is so, so powerful. I don’t care how old or seasoned or how high you are in an organization. Saying ‘I don’t know’ can give you the vulnerability you need to lead better.”

She also cautioned her listeners against having too large a circle of friends, especially of the same gender. “Don’t have too many girlfriends. They take a lot of time. They pull you in a lot of directions. The time to have a lot of girlfriends is in high school. But after that, be careful, because they can be a real drag on your time and energy.”

Bartz offered these additional observations to the group.

  • “I’m not a big believer in mentoring…. I think we are each a snowflake, and I don’t think that that there is another snowflake who is just like me, who can mentor me. What we really are is a mosaic of all our experiences. All those little tiles come together and make you the person that you are. Which means that the advice the 64-year-old me is giving to the 30-year-old me works, because they are the same person. But just because something worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for someone else.”
  • “A lot of people talk about ‘career ladders.’ But a ladder is a very unstable structure. Think instead of a pyramid. Not every career move you make will be a promotion — up and to the right. Sometimes, some of the most important things you can do in your career is make lateral moves. Or even downward moves. But you’re laying a foundation.”
  • “In terms of lifelong learning, one of the most important things is to not get bored. If you get bored, guess what, everyone will figure it out. Boredom and the inability to be inquisitive and to learn more is death in a job. It’s death to your spirit, to the people working around you and to the people you work for.”

To the extent she managed to avoid boredom during her career, much of the credit belonged to the person Bartz says was the greatest influence on her — her grandmother, who raised her and her brother after their mother died, and who, by Bartz’s account, was anything but dull.

Bartz recalled the day when she was 12 and her brother was six, and they jointly discovered a rattlesnake crawling around in their barn. They ran to their grandmother in panic. The old woman put down what she was doing, calmly walked into the barn, grabbed a shovel, and with a few blows, severed the rattlesnake’s head from its body. She then turned to her grandchildren, noting, “Hell, you could have done that.”

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