Yahoo’s Bartz’s biggest mistake: playing through pain

December 1, 2010, 4:24 PM UTC

The famously volatile Bartz defends her two-year tenure as Yahoo CEO to Fortune and says she’s cut out the cuss words — sometimes.

Carol Bartz, American technology executive, cu...
Image via Wikipedia

When Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz opens her mouth, it’s likely something quote-worthy—though possibly not fit for print—is coming. Case in point: Last May, the outspoken chief executive told TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington to “f*** off” during a videotaped interview.

But on Tuesday evening, a somewhat more subdued Bartz took the stage at a Fortune Most Powerful Women dinner in Palo Alto, Calif. to discuss the state of Yahoo’s (YHOO) turnaround, the company’s identity, and how her relationship with the press has changed. No expletives included.

“Have I changed my interviewing style? Yes I have,” Bartz told Patricia Sellers, editor at large at Fortune and co-chair of the Most Powerful Women Summit.

She was nevertheless unapologetic about her nearly two-year reign at Yahoo, which has suffered from flat revenue (some due to businesses it has consciously exited) and a stagnant stock that today trades for less than half the $33-a-share offer it turned down from Microsoft (MSFT) in 2008.

“We are in the middle of a big recession, a lot of companies are struggling with revenues,” Bartz said in defense of Yahoo’s performance.

[cnnmoney-video vid=/video/technology/2010/12/01/mpw_bartz_yahoo_ceo.fortune]

Asked to highlight her best move as CEO of the online media company, Bartz called out the company’s 2009 deal with Microsoft, in which the software giant assumed responsibility for powering search for both companies and Yahoo took control of ad sales for Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

But she acknowledged that she misjudged just how hard it would be to work on that deal and other business at Yahoo while recovering from painful knee-replacement surgery.

Asked to grade her own performance, which she scored a “B minus” a year ago, Bartz quipped that she’d moved to a pass/fail model. Her report card? “Pass,” she said, smiling.

Indeed Bartz claimed people are still excited to come work for Yahoo–Ross Levinsohn, the former head of Fox Interactive Media is a recent high-profile addition–and that it was much harder for her to recruit at Autodesk (where she served as CEO for 14 years).

“When you get 30 miles outside of Silicon Valley and New York, it [Yahoo] has a great reputation,” Bartz said.

Just two years into the job, Bartz said the constant interest, inspection and judgement of Yahoo has been shocking. After her on-stage interview, Bartz also said she believes part of the reason the scrutiny has been so disproportional is because she is a female CEO.

It’s been a rocky year for other high-profile female executives from Silicon Valley—in early November, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Meg Whitman, eBay’s ex-chief executive, both lost their bids for political office in California.

Women account for just 6% of the CEOs of the top 100 technology companies, so like Fiorina and Whitman, Bartz is a bit of a rarity.

After her on-stage interview, a number of women thanked Bartz for being “real.” But who is the real Bartz—the outspoken exec prone to profanity, or the tamer, more guarded Bartz who appeared Tuesday evening?

The answer is probably somewhere in between. According to Bartz, sometimes “days go by” without her cursing. I guess Tuesday was one of those days.