Wednesday, June 20, 2007

AllThingsD - Voices: A New Day for Yahoo

From today's Voices section of AllThingsD:

(Thanks to Kara Swisher for the invitation.)

A New Day for Yahoo

June 20, 2007
by Eric Jackson
President, Jackson Leadership Systems

I hadn’t expected Terry Semel to step down on Monday. Less than a week before, after Yahoo’s annual meeting in Santa Clara, Calif., he approached me. He was quite affable, considering that we had had a pointed exchange during the earlier Q&A session and that I led a group of 100 shareholders owning 2 million shares who had submitted a nine-point “Plan B” to the company for creating additional value, where point No. 1 was to remove him as CEO. Despite that, he said he was interested in holding a “constructive dialogue” with our group of shareholders. He gave every indication that day that he intended to fight on (with, yes, “fire in the belly”).

Several commentators didn’t think that Yahoo would change all that much following the shareholder vote, partially because Jerry Yang (and also co-founder David Filo) is “not a boat rocker.” (Kara Swisher did acknowledge that she was wrong in this post.) Something obviously had changed between last week’s annual meeting and Monday’s closing-bell announcement. Jerry Yang is the new CEO, with Sue Decker as the company’s president.

In the wake of this news, analysts, commentators and pundits started reading the tea leaves about what the changes signified. Some saw Yang as purely an “interim” CEO who didn’t really want the job. Some said that he was too close to Semel and wouldn’t deviate from the prior strategy. Others inferred that Yahoo was more likely to put itself up for sale (including–surprise–a few investment bankers). One big complaint leveled against Yang was that he’d never run a 12,000-person company before. No, he just helped create and build a 12,000-person company.

As a shareholder, I couldn’t be happier with the leadership moves announced Monday. Yang will be extremely successful in his new role. He wants this now–not for himself, but for the users, employees and shareholders of the company. What’s more, he can and will be successful.

Here’s why: In the weeks leading up to the shareholder vote in Santa Clara, I was contacted by email or phone by almost a dozen current or recently departed Yahoo employees. What’s clear is that Yang and Filo are universally beloved. “David Filo would send out IMs to others on the product/engineering side when some bug turned up at 2 a.m.,” boasted one very impressed ex-Yahoo. Several people asked me: Can we “draft” them to play even bigger roles at the company? They’re getting their wish.

So, let’s go over the case for Yang as CEO:

  1. Nobody knows the business as well as he and Filo do. These two guys are the corporate DNA. When you walk into the lobby at Yahoo, you are inundated with an internally focused marketing/morale-boosting campaign called “We Were; We Are,” complete with black-and-white shots of the early days at the Stanford computer lab, contrasted with colorful modern images of Yang and Filo. They have continued to be intimately involved in the business and know where it needs to go.
  2. He’s already off to a fast start. For a guy who some say was reluctant to take the job, he appeared remarkably energetic in Monday’s analyst call announcing the changes. His instincts and alacrity will serve him well.
  3. He knows how to do deals. Yang architected the very significant partnership with SBC (now AT&T) in early 2001. More recently, in 2005, he did the deal with Critics have pointed to and GeoCities as examples of expensive acquisitions he was involved in that didn’t pan out. This was a different time, however, when Yahoo had a different market cap itself. His instincts were correct (on video and social networking, way before they were seen as “growth” areas). He won’t be shy to do deals in the months ahead, which the company will benefit from.
  4. He’s got the mental strength. It would not have been easy for Yang to go through the last few days leading up to Monday’s announcement. Semel is a friend. Yang wanted it to work. But he was obviously ready to take on this responsibility.
  5. It’s his time. None of us has experience until we get experience. Yang hasn’t run a 12,000-person company, but he’s worked there every day of his professional life. He’s 38, not 25. And he–like Filo–loves this company more than anyone else. More important, though, the two co-founders feel a responsibility for the company. It’s a critical time and Yang’s ready. Back in business school, I took a class in which we read and discussed key passages from Shakespearean plays and the business lessons they taught. Yang reminds me of Prince Hal, the 20-something, fun-loving prince from “Henry IV.” Hal’s father and courtiers worry that he won’t be ready later to ascend to the throne. Yet, when fate calls, Hal closes one chapter of his life and becomes King Henry V–one of the most revered in the monarchy’s history. My sense from watching Yang at the meeting and since then (and the same goes for Filo) is that the flip has switched. These guys are all-in, in a way they haven’t been before.
  6. Sue Decker’s there to help. As a leader, you rely on those around you to help you in areas where you are weaker. Yang’s lucky to have someone as capable as Decker working closely with him.

So, what does this mean for Yahoo’s shareholders? Unlike some, I strongly believe that Yahoo will remain independent. Yang and Filo built this company. They aren’t there to flip it. Yahoo will be much more aggressive in acquiring other companies. And they will look to win on new battlegrounds with Google. It was encouraging to read that they will release the next version of Yahoo! Go (their mobile product) on Friday.

The two most important competitive advantages any company has are its culture and its people. Yahoo’s been blessed with great people through the years, but morale has taken a hit of late. With Yang ensconced as CEO, and with Decker’s and Filo’s support, people are excited again in Sunnyvale. It’s about We Were, We Are, but also what We Will Be.

Eric Jackson is president of Jackson Leadership Systems, a leadership, strategy and governance consulting firm. This year, he led a “Plan B” group of 100 Yahoo shareholders with more than 2 million shares in an Internet-based activist campaign to unlock value at the company.

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