It’s quite remarkable that as I sit here planning a week of blog posts all around the theme of honesty, I read that Yahoo! has lost their CEO, Scott Thomson, in a debacle which centres around misrepresentation of what sort of degree he has on his CV.
I’m actually really sorry that he’s lost his job. Not because I know him or anything about him and not because I necessarily think he was the right man for the job, but because the staff at Yahoo! really needed him to be right and for it to work. Yahoo! and the 12,000 people who work there really need some great leadership right now, and the unexpected loss of another new CEO is really the last thing that hard working engineers, account managers, salespeople and other loyal staffers need.
Scott Thomson only joined Yahoo! as CEO in January and is their fourth CEO in 5 years. Jerry Yang was CEO from June 2007 and was gone by the end of 2008. Carol Bartz was next but she only lasted 32 months. After a short interim period, Scott took over in January this year.
For those of you who’ve missed the story the question isn’t that he had a degree, more just which one did he have. His CV said a degree in “accounting and computing” where it seems the actual degree he had is in “accounting”. I can’t imagine that this would really make much difference to his hiring - he is the ex President of PayPal and I’m pretty certain the Yahoo! board would have hired him regardless of what has original degree was in. By the time you’re at Scott’s level your degree is much less important than what you’ve done with it, and what experience you have gained since. But it is reasonable, isn’t it, to expect someone of CEO level to remember what their degree was in and be able to write it clearly on a CV?
The point here, and the undermining of Scott, seems to hinge somewhat on how he and the company he was leader of has handled it. Initially Yahoo! downplayed the story, saying it was an inadvertent admin error that happened to his CV some years ago. This stacks up - Scott’s biography on the PayPal website also includes it. But this response started people to question his appointment still “If they didn’t check his degree certificate, how much vetting did they actually do?”. Yahoo! reiterated their view that “Scott is highly qualified executive with a successful track record leading large consumer technology companies”, which of course he is, but perception is everything here and by now the story was starting to get legs. One of the problems of being CEO of a 12,000 person company in the media spotlight is everyone has a view on what you are doing and you really do have to be whiter than white if you’re going to weather the inevitable storms.
Scott went on to deny any wrongdoing and try to blame a corporate headhunting agency Heidrick & Struggles. They did not take kindly to their competence being questioned and pretty quickly offered documentary evidence that the error was his and not theirs.
I can hear the words of my friend Helen Craik (Asperity’s founder COO) in my ears as she often told me “It’s always the cover up that gets you, never the actual mistake itself”. This, it seems could have some truth here with already one member of the Yahoo! board going on record to say it was Scott’s handling of the issue that sealed his fate.
Of course there are many views of what is going on and as an outsider you have to be careful as you never get very close to the truth. Did Scott really lose his job because of his CV issue? Or were the investors unhappy about his first few months in the job and did they use this as an excuse to get him out? There’s no question that the whole scandal was discovered and publicised by a particular Yahoo! investor, we know that it’s been widely reported. But we just don’t know their motivations. Knowing investors as I do I would be surprised if their motivation was a purist belief in CV honesty! It’s much more credible that they were unhappy with what he was doing. Some Yahoo! staff who are closer to the truth have complained that he was alienating people and partners, which you can read more about here.
Whatever the real reasons, I hope the Yahoo! board can get the senior team together quickly once more. Yahoo! already has an uphill battle finding it’s way in a really crowded and tricky online world. They have some great products, but so do others and technology is a world where you can be King one minute and fallen the next. They really need everything and everyone behind them to be able to have a fighting chance of making it all work. It’s something that 12,000 loyal staff really deserve.
The rest of this week
Honesty, and its value to business as a competitive USP is the subject of the rest of this week on my blog. I could say that I’d been inspired to do that by this story, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t really be true. I’d been planning it for a while and it’s purely coincidence.
Yahoo! are one of Asperity’s clients and have been for some years.