The Yahoo! board: Jonathan Swift would be chuckling…

Illustration to Gulliver's Travels, by J.J. Gr...
Illustration to Gulliver’s Travels, by J.J. Grandville. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somewhat unbelievably, Yahoo! has now cycled through their 4th full time CEO in less than 5 years, which if not a record for a Fortune 1000 company must certainly be up there in the top rankings.

While it has been a long time since Yahoo! was really very strategically relevant to where the internet world was heading, the latest self-imposed misstep on the company by the apparently hapless board was hiring the now ex-CEO Scott Thompson and not bothering to really vet his credentials too closely. So when early in his tenure (Thompson lasted only 4 months in the CEO job) he got into a pissing match with a large investor who was not particularly happy with the trajectory of the company  (valuation down by 50% over 4 years in a high growth market segment — wonder why they’re unhappy…?), it seems the investor — Daniel Loeb of 3rd Point LLC — went out of his way to dig up some dirt on the CEO. And low and behold, he found that the degree on his CV did not match reality. And thus the latest Yahoo! shit-storm began… and now ended  with the resignation of the CEO and 5 board members.

For me, this latest little story on Yahoo! contains a number of cautionary tales:

  1. For the board members: If your company has been cycling through CEO’s at a rapid rate, make sure you vet the new one extremely well and know EVERYTHING about them. They will be entering into a highly publicly visible, high-stakes, take-no-prisoners arena and their credentials (and your rationale for your choice) has to be bullet proof;
  2. For the new CEO: don’t pick fights with the key investors early in your tenure. You have a hell of a job ahead of you and you need all the key stakeholders to be pitching in working with you. Your job is about changing the trajectory of the business itself and you need all the help you can get. Fighting internal rear-guard actions right out of the gate is the worst possible scenario for you, and will sap any positive momentum you can develop for your change initiative;
  3. For everyone: don’t lie about your basic credentials (education, job titles, companies worked at, etc.) on your CV, your website, your where-ever. In the internet world, it should be clear to everybody by now that statements made once can live forever. There is no “private setting” on the internet so a lie here and a snotty comment there, an inappropriate picture, a whatever can always come back and bite you in your working life and personal life. There is a  big difference between “positioning” and “lying” and you need to respect that.

Finally, for those of you who haven’t read Jonathan Swift and hence aren’t familiar with the creatures in his classic novel Gulliver’s Travels, here is the take on them from Wikipedia:  “A Yahoo is a legendary being in the novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift. Swift describes them as, filthy and with unpleasant habits, resembling human beings far too closely for the liking of protagonist Lemuel Gulliver, who finds the calm and rational society of intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms, far preferable. The Yahoos are primitive creatures obsessed with “pretty stones” they find by digging in mud, thus representing the distasteful materialism and ignorant elitism Swift encountered in Britain. Hence the term “yahoo” has come to mean “a crude, brutish or obscenely coarse person”.

In popular conversation, I take a “Yahoo” to mean someone that doesn’t really think things through, shoots from the hip, is loud and brash, and is probably pretty thin in terms of emotional competence. Unfortunately these days, this sounds like an accurate description of the Yahoo! board members and ex-CEO. What a pity… better luck with #5.

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