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.

First Published June 1, 2006

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