Carol Bartz

​Learning from Failure

Carol Bartz BA1971 lives her business career by what she calls the three Fs: Fail. Fast. Forward.

“Accept failure and learn from it,” Bartz told graduates at UW–Madison’s 2012 commencement. “Failure, especially in our 50 years of working, failure is so important to understand, how it can progress forward.

“I think the greatest strength we have in the U.S. and especially in Silicon Valley is that we actually view failure as a sign of experience. We view failure as a way of life, and those people [who are willing to fail] are willing to take risks on the road to innovation.”

Bartz’s philosophy encourages people to risk failure and then move on quickly if it occurs.

Black and white photo of Carol Bartz.

Image courtesy of the UW Archives.

From age 12, Bartz was raised by her grandmother in Alma, Wisconsin, after her mother died and her father dropped out of the picture. She earned a computer science degree at UW–Madison, and she has seen both success and failure during a tough, plainspoken career at the helm of tech firms.

From The Park

Women had limited choices when it came to careers in 1966: teaching and nursing. I didn’t have the patience to be a teacher, and I look terrible in white. I thought of computer science as an unknown.​

Source: Used by permission of copyright holder.​

She worked for 3M, Digital Equipment Corporation, and Sun Microsystems before becoming chief executive officer at software developer Autodesk, where, on her first day, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Bartz, then 43, underwent chemotherapy and a mastectomy and returned to work in four weeks, instead of the recommended six. Her drive helped to boost Autodesk’s annual revenue from $300 million to $1.5 billion during her 14 years.

In 2009, she was hired as CEO of challenged Internet giant Yahoo and told analysts in a conference call that she planned to get Yahoo “some friggin’ breathing room” so it could “kick some butt.”

As she anticipated, the turnaround was slow, and Bartz was fired by phone in 2011. In a brief email to the company’s 14,400 employees, she detailed the firing, and that email was later leaked to the media.

Bartz — who serves on corporate boards, including those of PlanGrid and Cisco — said that there is a difference between managers and leaders: “Managing winds up being the allocation of resources against tasks. Leadership focuses on people. My definition of a leader is someone who helps people succeed.”