Losing Jerry Yang: Why CEO’s departure reflects how Yahoo! has been broken

The news that Jerry Yang was stepping down as CEO of Yahoo! filled me with a mixture of delight and sadness.  Delight, because anyone who drove their company’s value into the ground like Yang did deserves to be removed (and, in truth, should quickly remove themselves); sadness because I remember how high my hopes were when I joined Yahoo! In 2006–and how frustrating it was to have everyone there care so much and work so hard–only to have top management unable to be effective and make the right calls.

My two years at Yahoo! were a window into multiple changes of direction, resets and re-focusings unmatched by any other company I have worked at (including AOL).  When I came in, Dan Rosensweig was saying connecting people was the key and everyone was scrambling to integrate profiles they didn’t have. Midway, it was advertising tools and self-serve that was going to be the core value, and then, later, it turned into being the front door and portal for the world. In between, each of these morphed 47 times, leading to divisions and business lines being shuttled between executives, people being laid off and then offered new positions, and a drift, that once I left the company, 10 months ago, seemed chronic and persistent.

To my mind, both Yang and the culture he created are responsible for this. All along, as bright people left or were failed to be given useful new jobs and were moved out, the senior execs kept saying everything was fine. But in truth, employees were being given new managers who–inevitably–left, and then reassigned to more new managers, many of whom, in most divisions (Tapan Bhat’s excepted), left again. The disconnect between the happy face of the Yahoo! senior team and the major wandering in the desert of the lacking a strategy troups comes from the same lack of grounding in reality that Yang demonstrated in hiring Sue Decker as his Number 2 (no operations background? Puh-leeze!)

So, now Yang’s departure offers some interesting scenarios:

  • Does the board demonstrate their complacency and hire someone from his executive circle at Yahoo!
  • Or do they hire someone who can ready Big Purple for sale (and cut and cut as they do so)?
  • Or do they hire someone with the guts to manage the long, slow work of rebuilding what was once a set of premium assets?

In my opinion, if they are smart, they will go for #2–but that will be Yahoo’s loss–and something that happened entirely on Jerry Yang’s watch.