There’s no question that CEOs are a huge determinant of a company’s success. Founders obviously, but also hired CEOs like Jack Welch or Lou Gerstner. And because CEOs are so important (and visible), they tend to get hyped.
A good example of that are the CEOs of Yahoo! and AOL, Carol Bartz and Tim Armstrong. Both are in the same business (selling advertising), and both are taking the helm of companies that have a great past but are troubled, whose position in the market is eroding, and whose future is in question.
And each got a divergent reception in the media. After Jerry Yang’s hapless (mis)management of the stillborn Yahoo-Microsoft merger, Bartz was a woman (it helps), with a previous record of successfully turning around a large company, Autodesk, and obviously had great charm, with her folksy ways and occasional f-bombs. Everyone loved her, hailing her as Yahoo!’s savior.
Meanwhile, after Tim Armstrong left Google, where he was head of sales for North America, there were whispers that he was “just a salesman” (overlooking that he was a two-time entrepreneur before joining Google) of a product that sells itself, who ended up at the right place at the right time, and is too lightweight to really do anything with AOL.
And what’s happened so far?
Well, Carol Bartz’s made a few missteps, notably with her search outsourcing deal with Microsoft, which is so mindbogglingly complex as to be unworkable. Meanwhile Tim Armstrong’s made every right move, from setting out an ambitious (but doable) content-based strategy for AOL, to proceeding with layoffs quickly and humanely, to setting expectations right for AOL’s IPO, to building the new Seed platform, which is an innovative product with lots of potential. His only slip-up to my mind was the horrible AOL rebranding, but apparently (unlike Yahoo!’s similarly disastrous branding campaign) consumers like it. So even his screw-ups were wins.
Now don’t get me wrong — it’s way, way too soon to judge either of them as CEOs. The AOL turnaround is a huge gamble, and neither of them has been around for long.
But I still think it’s instructive to see how differently they were treated by the media, and how Bartz has had significant stumbles while Armstrong has so far been A+. Don’t believe the hype, I guess is my point. Especially not in the business press.