The World According to Carol Bartz

On September 6, 2011, Carol Bartz was infamously fired, by phone, as CEO of Yahoo after two years at the Internet company. Back in 2006, we talked to the veteran business exec about what it takes to bust through the glass ceiling. Even then she proved that candor was certainly one of her strong suits.

Martha Mendoza

The Shocking News

When Carol Bartz made her latest big decision — to step down as CEO of a $1.5 billion company — she says, "I cried my eyes out." Then she went to her board of directors and delivered the news.

The outgoing CEO of Autodesk Inc., a legendary software company, Carol Bartz is by all appearances the proverbial tough cookie. She’s famous in tech circles for how she has handled any number of corporate crises, not to mention the story of how she was diagnosed with breast cancer the same week she started as CEO 14 years ago. Others know how Bartz’s mother died when Bartz was 8, how she was rescued by her grandmother from a difficult father, and how she banged her head against tempered glass ceilings at some of the nation’s top companies before proving the points that any woman in business had to prove back in the day.

The decision to resign as CEO of the software company she built is one of those tough decisions that tough people have to make. Bartz, 57, and her board were worried that her heir apparent, Carl Bass, would leave Autodesk if he didn’t get the chance to run it. Bartz didn’t want to groom another successor. And because Autodesk was in great shape, it was a good time to make the change. So, in January, she decided she would take the post of executive chairman and scheduled the handoff for May 1.

Bartz’s Challenge

Bartz is easy to praise — and dismiss — as the pushy female corporate climber who brazened her way past big barriers and emerged triumphant. Not a bad model, but her story, like any good one, is more complicated. The confidence she displays comes from facing down a lot of fears. She passionately loves her work, but her drive is also a legacy of early deprivation: "Once you really have an insecurity," she says, "you never lose it." Bartz has a blunt candor, and a repertoire of smart comebacks. She doesn’t really let you in. One thing is clear: She thrives on pressure.

But Bartz’s biggest challenge may be the one she has now — slowing down, even if it’s from 120 miles per hour to 115, as she puts it. "I don’t have experience" in downshifting, she says. "I’ve never done it." When she told her daughter, Layne, 17, the news, "She looked at me like I was crazy." Bartz’s husband, Bill Marr, who retired 10 years ago, warned her, "Don’t expect you’re going to come be CEO of the house and boss us around." "They were terrified," Bartz says, laughing.

Not that her in-box is empty. Bartz will head Autodesk’s board of directors, travel to India and China to build business, and serve on two other boards. She’ll do a one-off assignment for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bartz won’t reveal details. Nor will she comment on speculation that she might ultimately take on another big job, something corporate, or in venture capital or philanthropy. Her calendar is booked through next January, except for August, when she plans to see Layne off to college, play golf, and plunge her hands into the soil at her Atherton, California, home. Gardening is a passion learned from her grandmother, and carried with her: Through half a dozen moves around the country as she built her career, Bartz has carted along up to 100 pots of plants she was nurturing, from bearded irises to heirloom tomatoes.

The Carol Bartz Story

Carol Bartz’s early story is one of vulnerability — and the refusal to be vulnerable. She was born in the town of Winona, Minnesota, in 1948, to a mother with a chronic, disabling disease. Shirley Bartz died when Carol was 8 and her brother, Jim, was 8. For the next few years, Carol would drop Jim off at the sitter’s on her way to school and pick him up on the way home. Their father worked at a feed mill for $40 a week. His idea of discipline was to beat the children with a belt.

When Bartz was 12, her grandmother, Alice Schwartz, took her and Jim to raise in her own home, 30 miles away, in Wisconsin. Schwartz was smart, supportive, loving, and strong. Encouraged to succeed, Bartz bloomed: In high school, she was a majorette, the homecoming queen, and one of just two girls in her physics and advanced algebra classes.

She found another home of sorts in the bank where her Sunday-school teacher was president, working her way up from secretary to teller. Like any person with clear memories of money struggles, Bartz remembers every decimal of those early paychecks. She earned 75 cents an hour as a teller. Right after she graduated from high school, the bank managers realized they owed her back pay because of a change in the minimum wage, and gave her a check for $350. It was "the biggest windfall in my life," says Bartz, who years later would cash in $11 million in Autodesk stock options in one year. "It was an incredible amount of money to me."

The bank managers also helped Bartz get a scholarship, allowing her to go to William Woods, an elite all-girls college in Fulton, Missouri. She wasn’t one of the crowd, though; she had a job in the cafeteria serving food to the wealthy students. "A pretty humbling experience," she calls it. "I was one of very few students actually working there. It wasn’t the kind of school where people did that."

On to College

Two years into college, Bartz took a class at a neighboring all-boys school and fell in love with what in 1966 was an obscure, if intriguing, field. "I was going to be a math major, but I didn’t want to teach math. So I took a computer class. Well, the first time I wrote a program, I just loved it," she says, sighing at the memory. "I absolutely loved it. We had to write a program that would add up all of the license plate numbers in the state of Missouri. Ah! I remember that so clearly."

Bartz transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study computer science, and worked her way through school serving drinks to lobbyists and politicians at the Hoffman House supper club. She exercised constantly ("like, 1,500 hours a day") to fit into the required costume, a red miniskirt and black fishnet stockings, and wore a huge red feather tucked into her hair. Bartz had talked her way into the job, only to discover that cocktails were more complex than she had anticipated. But with help from a friendly bartender, she was soon earning tips from her regular customers. One evening one of those customers snapped her garter belt as he ordered a drink. "Then he looked up, I looked back — and, oh my god, it was my high school principal!" she says. (William Freese, the former principal, praises Bartz’s accomplishments, and says he well remembers the "little outfit" she wore at the club, but that he did not snap her garter.)

Bartz would later apply lessons she learned at the club — like memorizing her clients’ names, hometowns, and favorite drinks — to her marketing jobs. After college, she sold automated banking services. She remembers "driving around in my go-go boots, traveling to small towns, trying to convince little banks to automate." Then she made the leap to 3M Company.

Being Singled Out

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was barely a vocabulary for the kind of discrimination and harassment Bartz would face, but it was unmistakable from her first day. "3M was where I first realized that this corporate thing against women really existed," she says. "I was definitely singled out." In her first week, Bartz, the only woman professional in a division of 300 men, was sent to an out-of-town business meeting where everyone was assigned to share a room. When "C. Bartz" saw her room assignment, she quietly had the hotel switch her to a single room. The next morning she was met by a manager who had just, apparently, had a good look at the list. "We’re going to have to let you go," he said. "You slept with somebody last night."

Bartz can laugh about it now. "They were so whacked out just because there was actually a female there," she says. "I told them I didn’t sleep with anybody last night, and that I didn’t know anyone there. Even so, for the next several hours, I was fired."

Bartz spent four years at 3M. But in 1976, when she requested a transfer to headquarters, "They told me to my face, ‘Women don’t do these jobs.’ It was the first time I actually heard that," she recalls. "I’m out of here," she told them. She packed up her desk and left.

Bartz pauses in her recounting of this story, rummages through her desk and finds her BlackBerry. She reads aloud an e-mail from a former 3M colleague, sent when Bartz was named to the latest of many lists of top women executives: "I remember your challenge to a manager to allow you to grow and the consequences of his unwillingness to do so. You left. You certainly attained a higher level of accomplishment than any of us minions." Bartz looks up, smiling. "Isn’t that nice?"

Moving On Up

Bartz went on to move up the ranks at Digital Equipment Corp. and then at Sun Microsystems, moving to Atlanta, to Boston, and to California. She married and divorced, then remarried. Bill, her husband of 18 years, left his own high-tech industry job to manage the family investments and spend more time with Layne.

But even as Layne heads off to college and her own career, Bartz sees the stubborn remnants of sexism in business. At a meeting in New York recently, she entered a room full of male business leaders. Slim, tall, sparkling with confidence in her trademark red suit, Bartz saw the usual looks of confusion on the faces in the room: Who is this woman? She had her shtick ready. "I must be Carol," she said in a loud, clear voice, "because I’m the only woman."

"It happens all the time," she says later. "Most people assume that because I’m a woman, I’m someone who’s standing behind a leader, a man." But she adds, "The fact that they’re unenlightened is their problem, not mine."

This is standard Bartz doctrine: She won’t wring her hands over problems, but she won’t dismiss them either. She scoffs at a statement made by Carly Fiorina, the highest-ranked woman at a public company until she was pushed out of the CEO spot at Hewlett-Packard in 2005. Fiorina had declared that the glass ceiling in high tech was gone. "Carly was so intent on being considered normal, just one of many senior executives in the country, that she just did not want to have another agenda," Bartz says. "In my opinion she was wrong to say that. But she believes it; she gets to say that."

Bartz on the Balance of Life

Bartz is equally unsentimental about the "myth of the balanced life," as she calls it. "Women put all this crap on themselves," she says. "They think, ‘I’m going to cook a great breakfast, wash up the dishes before I leave, take the kids to school, call my college roommate on my way in to work, be a CEO all day, volunteer on the way home, do a little exercising, cook a wonderful dinner, help with homework, have sex.’" Bartz pauses, grins widely and shakes her hair. "I don’t think so." At Autodesk, she has gotten credit for building a culture that’s supportive of busy people. She shuts the company down for a week every winter and takes off five weeks a year herself. But she also wants women to change their thinking. They "beat themselves up for not doing it all, and they get mad at everyone around them. That’s nuts," she says.

Bartz developed her own model back when Layne was a baby and she commuted weekly between her home in Dallas and Sun Microsystems in Mountainview, California. At midnight on Thursdays, she would fly home and then spend three days pushing a stroller, going to Gymboree classes and snuggling with Layne. On Mondays, she would kiss the baby and hand her to the nanny, and then fly back to San Jose. "For four days, I got to use my mind, I got to sleep, I got to have a real career. I had the best of both worlds," she says. "It was awesome for me, and I don’t think Layne is any the worse for it. I always vowed that if Laney asked me, ‘Where do you go, Mama?’ I wouldn’t do it anymore."

When Bartz talks about that time in her life, she literally ducks her head, as if dodging blows from would-be critics. But she refuses to be judged. How did she handle mommy guilt? "I didn’t," she says easily. "I was already well established in the business world. I just felt I should be able to do both, and I had the resources to get good help."

When Layne was a little older, she and Bartz would sit down at the beginning of each school year and look at the calendar together. Bartz would make a handful of commitments: the Halloween party, the Christmas sing. "I’d tell her, ‘These are the times Mommy will be here. Anything else will be a surprise,’" she said. "So there was none of this, ‘Mommy, can you drive to the Spider Museum?’ So she was surprised when I showed up, instead of depressed that I wasn’t at everything. She learned about schedules, she learned about commitments, and I did get to enjoy some of the school times." Even so, Bartz admits, there were times when her daughter would "see all of those other moms volunteering at school events, and I’d feel like a slug."

Carol’s Life Plan

If there’s a Carol Bartz life plan, it’s less about balance and more about some high-end compartmentalizing: "My head has a pretty good switch in it, on and off." She spends about half her time on the road and says she doesn’t believe in jet lag. She uses sleeping pills, wears an eye mask, and drinks lots of water. And she doesn’t "buy into that whole call-home-every-day thing. You’re on the other side of the world, waking up at two a.m. to say good night to your family; that’s crazy. You call when you can, and you get home soon," she says.

And, where necessary, you resort to brute force determination. When she’s not traveling, Bartz is driven from her home in Atherton, part of Silicon Valley, to Autodesk headquarters, which is 75 miles away, north of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge. It used to be a miserable, daily venture before she taught herself how to read and ride in the back of a moving car at the same time — without getting carsick.

"We’d stop once, twice, sometimes three times along the way to throw up," she remembers. Her driver, Michael, became adept at dashing off busy Highway 101 so Bartz could lean out the door. "I just figured this was something I had to do," she says. Her family was established in Atherton when she got the Autodesk job, and she didn’t want to move them. "There’s no way I could spend two hours a day in the car without reading. I can’t waste that much time."

Bartz’s Bout with Cancer

Bartz took a similar approach 14 years ago to her bout with cancer. Recruited at 43 for the biggest job of her life and anticipating a busy few months, she scheduled a week’s vacation between jobs and packed it with a teeth cleaning, a Pap smear and, last, a mammogram.

During the screening, she was impatient with the technician, who kept pulling her back for one more picture. Bartz was eager to go pick Layne up at a birthday party. "I kept telling the technician to hurry it up," she recalls. The next morning, she told her husband, "You know, it was a little odd yesterday. This technician just kept rechecking me." Ten minutes later the doctor called: She had breast cancer.

Bartz began her new job a few days later, but waited a month before she announced at a trade show press conference that she had breast cancer, would undergo surgery and be out for a month. "Which breast?" hollered one reporter. "What an asshole," Bartz says, remembering the moment.

Recovering from a mastectomy and trans flap surgery, to rebuild the breast with abdominal tissue, was brutal. She took just four weeks off, then worked full-time through seven months of chemotherapy treatments. "It’s a blur now," she says, "but the chemo part was hell. The biggest hell was that I gained so much weight." She put on and later took off 70 pounds. Bartz still worries about her weight, snacking constantly on diet cheese and diet soda.

Bartz coped with cancer by refusing to feel sorry for herself. "I was of the mind, and frankly still am, that if you focus too much on yourself, you get kind of possessed."

Still, looking back, Bartz says she overdid the "tough guy" routine. "Please tell people that when doctors say it takes six weeks to recover, you shouldn’t go back to work after four," she says. "Missing work those two weeks wouldn’t have killed anybody. And it was really tough on me. I should have stayed home." She also remembers how she wanted to shield her family from her own worries, but didn’t join a support group. "I wish I had dropped the attitude that ‘I’m too busy’ for a group. That was wrong."

Bartz may have some regrets, but she "doesn’t believe in running around with should-haves and would-haves and could-haves," she says. She has always gotten done what had to be done.

There’s an irony in her recent decision to give up the power of the CEO job to Carl Bass. Back in 1993, Bartz bought Bass’s company, then fired him when she felt he was pushing too hard for change at Autodesk. A few months later, she realized she needed him and hired him back. He went on to develop some critical software and helped the company reverse a dangerous slide during the dotcom years.

Bartz has assured Bass, she says, that she will allow him to have control and run the company. "I promised myself that, before I make any new commitments, I’ll see what it’s like not to work 80-hour weeks." This is terra incognita, she emphasizes. "When I say it’s an unknown, it’s an unknown."

No one — not her family, friends, or Bartz herself — can picture her spending the next 10 years fine-tuning her golf swing or even puttering around the garden. "I have this work ethic, and that just doesn’t go away," she says. "But I also always feel a little insecure. I’ve been there, I’ve seen how tough life can be and how fleeting this can be. I will never lose that."

Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2006.

 

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First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 17:09

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