Lessons Learned When I was fired by Carol Bartz

I admire Carol Bartz, the new CEO of Yahoo. A week or so ago I sent an email to reporter Kara Swisher who has been covering Bartz at Yahoo about the time I wasfired by Carol Bartz. Swisher published it on her blog here.

I was in my early 30s and had never failed at anything in my life. I had a Computer Science degree and had been a programmer at Boeing and Sperry Univac. I had managed groups at a small Medical Information System company and at Digital Research, the makers of CP/M the fist PC operating system. I had taken a job at a young Sun Microsystems as a manager of the US Answer Center, the group that supported all of Sun's software products. My organization consisted of 35 fantastic people. But all was not sunshine and roses. After two years Sun was growing quickly and I had grown my group to well over one hundred people. On top of that we had just released a new Operating System, Sun OS 4.0, and it was full of bugs. the Answer Center was overwhelmed with  calls and we were failing. I was failing.

A sales person went on a customer call and the customer used the speaker phone in the middle of the table to call the Answer Center. He was put on hold for over 30 minutes. We had a lot of very angry customers. These customers were paying big bucks for their support contracts. It was so bad that when I met a new VP of Sales at an all hands meeting he said  "So you are the eye of the storm." … not a great way to be known. Although I was in way over my head and didn't know what to do to get out of this mess I liked Sun and wanted to stay with the company. It is was an amazing company full of amazing  people.

So when Carol Bartz was named the new VP of the services organization and she scheduled a meeting with me I was not really surprised when she said "Marion, we are not going to take you out and shot you but you are not going to doing this job any more.". She said it directly and with compassion. I had to find a new job. Luckily I found one at Sun. But as I said earlier I was devastated. I cried for a week.  I was totally knocked off my feet.

For years after this experience I spent time thinking about what I could have done differently, what I should have done to succeed. Even though the support situation was an enormous mess and pretty much all of the management in the service organization was replaced there had to have been a way to succeed. 

It is a measure of the magnitude of this experience in my life that I am writing this post today. I thought I would share with you my lessons learned from the experience.

Lessons learned

  1. Sometimes good people have to go – I probably  could have been coached to success and I know some of my peers who were fired could have been successful in the Bartz organization, but what was needed at that place and that time was focus, action, and a clean slate. By cleaning house Bartz sent a message that could be sent no other way. At the time I didn't think anyone could be successful in service at Sun but Bartz was and her first step was to start fresh.
  2. You need a team who will work together as a unit – At the time I had two people, Sharon and Bernie, in my management team who hated each other. They were each good people but together they drained energy from the team. I should have got rid of one of them. We needed a cohesive team focused on results and working on team building defocused us from working on solving our problems.
  3. Measure, Measure, Measure. You Manage what you measure. – We had a horrible home grown call management system with virtually no reporting. I should have hired someone to just focus on reporting and then we should have managed to the results. Everyone including product development should have been able to see the spike in calls and the reason for the spike.
  4. Ask for help up the line. – When I asked my boss for help he said he didn't know what to do. I should have taken my metrics to his boss  and his boss. It was not only my problem but it was everyone's problem. They needed to help own it.
  5. Always have a war plan – In hind sight I realize that we were under attack. I should have had a war plan in my drawer developed by me and my staff that we could pull out if there was a big buggy product release. Having a plan is very important.
  6. In time of war treat the situation like a war – I tried to manage my way through the problem in business as usual mode. Instead we should have been in war mode. All hands on deck, calling for reinforcements, putting other priorities on hold while we repelled the attack.
  7. Leadership – I should have called an all hands meeting and asked people to rally around. Everyone needed to know that we were at war and everyone needed to go above and beyond. I needed to lead the forces. Lincolnesque war time leadership was needed.
  8. Communication – The whole company needed to know that we were at war. Much later in my career at Sun my boss (he came from the Department of Defense) had daily red alert calls that all the VPs attended. Most people hated these calls but they did the job and focused on our failures. Support calls. are failures and we should have been treating them as such and making sure that the root cause was identified and eliminated.
  9. Life goes on – Even though this experience seemed like the end of world to me at the time. It wasn't. My daughters still went to school and grew up to be wonderful people. I got a new job at Sun and eventually became a Director in Sun's iWork Group. I had ups and downs but I fondly remember my almost 20 years at Sun.

I'd be interested in any ideas of perspective any of you who read this have.

Leadership and big changes

One of my last jobs at Sun was to lead the effort to get Sun people behind the change to a new desk top environment. We used a model for helping build commitment to change that really works. It makes for true leadership.

A company called Rackspace in Texas wanted to move their headquarters into a really bad part of town.  The employees were so appalled by the idea that the person hired to do focus groups with the employees quit after practically being assaulted at the first focus group. This video of a short interview with the Rackspace president is a great example of how to lead people through a controversial change. It shows all of the the key requirements for leading through change.

  • The people at the top have to really be committed to the change
  • There has to be a really good business reason for the change and it has to be communicated believably,
  • You have to listen to individuals about why they might not like the change. Listening means taking their concerns seriously. People need to be heard. I love the way this is described in the video as house to house fighting.
  • Everyone has to have a shared vision of the end state and how great it can be.
  • And then of course you have to have a plan to get there.

This link will take you to the video. Watch it. It is inspiring!

I found this story on the Scobleizer website. I love the way Robert Scoble tells the story.

"Wait a freaking second. How did one guy who had an absolutely crazy
idea that 1,400 people hated, including his partners, turn this all
around in about a year?

Leadership."

The Future of Computing

Digital Rules by Rich Karlgaard is almost always thought provoking. Recently he pointed to a fascinating article by George Gilder titled The Information Factories.  Gilder talks about how  we are moving towards massive centralized computing and what this means in terms of power consumption and  computer design. He estimates that "the total of electricity consumed by major search engines in 2006 approaches 5 gigawatts…..   Five gigawatts is almost enough to power the Las Vegas metropolitan area… on the hottest day of the year."   

Gilder who is known as a futurist says that "For the moment, at least, the power of massive parallelism has far outstripped the promise of alternative computing architectures" but he anticipates that just as centralized computing gave way to the PC revolution the pendulum will swing again. New technologies and the next wave of innovation "will compress today’s parallel solutions…. and transform the calculus of storage, bandwidth, and power that gives centralization its current advantage."

I think it is prescient that when he is talking about the future of computing he  quotes Andy Bechtolsheim who is one of Sun’s founders and is currently Sun’s Chief Architect and Senior Vice President of Network Systems. I predict and, in fact, hope that Sun will manage to lead the way into this new future.

More on Sun shareholder proposal

Mike Langberg has a an opinion piece in today’s San Jose Mercury News titled "Sun seems hearing-impaired on shareholder concerns".  Langberg talks about the Sun shareholder  proposal that was approved at the shareholders meeting. The proposal that was approved recommended getting rid of  Sun’s anti-takeover defense. The article said that so far this year there have been 25 proposals to remove poison pills at public companies in the U.S. and of those 16 have passed.  His main point is that "Sun ignores last week’s vote at its peril". He says that if some change doesn’t happen the shareholders might unseat board members at next years annual meeting.

I’m still interested in finding out more about William Steiner  the shareholder who put forward the proposal. I wonder if these kinds of shareholder proposals are a hobby for him and what motivates him to submit shareholder proposals.. It would also be interesting to know how many of his proposals pass.

I hear that Sun is doing more lay offs. I talked to a Sun employee today who told me a couple hundred more IT employees were just notified that they are being laid off.  I can tell you from my time at Sun that being in a company that is constantly doing lay offs is demoralizing.

Sun Shareholders Proposal Passes

The headline in the business section of the San Jose Mercury News Friday was "Shareholders Rebuke Sun".  At Sun’s annual meeting shareholders passed  a proposal to get rid of Sun’s  poison pill. The poison pill is designed to make hostile takeovers difficult. I think it is pretty unusual for a shareholders proposal to pass but given how long Sun has been underperfoming it is not surprising. 

The proposal was submitted by a William Steiner.  I am curious to know who he is. A Google search didn’t turn up much other that that he files shareholder proposals quite frequently. Edgar Online shows 356 filings by him over more than 10 years.

Even though the shareholder proposal passed it is not binding so it will be interesting to see if Sun pays attention to what its Shareholders think. I also wonder whether the poison pill  is stopping any potential buyers.

I used to work at Sun and I still own Sun stock. I would have to agree with the other shareholders that a takeover might be the best possible thing for Sun given that current management doesn’t seem to be able to deliver.