Ailing companies, turnaround CEOs

Back in 1997, Apple Computer was far from the revered company that it is today. The company was bleeding cash and then-CEO Gil Amelio was booted out after a boardroom coup.

Back in 1997, Apple Computer was far from the revered company that it is today. The company was bleeding cash and then-CEO Gil Amelio was booted out after a boardroom coup.

Steve Jobs, who himself was ousted from Apple in 1985, returned to the company and guided it back to profitability--and beyond. With the introduction of iconic products such as the iMac and iPod, Jobs helped build Apple into a mega brand--backed by its own legions of devout fanboys--recognized for its unique designs and user interface.

It was an amazing turnaround story for a company that was once dismissed by Dell Computer CEO Michael Dell. At a Gartner symposium in October 1997, asked how he would pull Apple out of its financial troubles, Dell said: "I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders."

No doubt, Jobs has the last laugh today.

With the Apple story set in the backdrop, Yahoo and its CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang come to mind.

To say Yang has had a tough year would be an understatement.

Like Jobs, Yang took over the CEO seat in 2007 under tumultuous times.

But unlike Jobs, Yang has yet to succeed in turning around the struggling company and his place in Yahoo was further scrutinized after a failed merger bid with Microsoft. Yang's last ditch attempt to change the company's fortunes with a lucrative partnership with Google fell to pieces, after the search giant opted out of the deal due to antitrust concerns.

Yang, it seems, now wants Microsoft back, noting that "the best thing for Microsoft to do is to buy Yahoo". But CEO Steve Ballmer this week flatly ruled out that possibility.

How then will Yang proceed from here, now that Microsoft and Google are out of the picture, to put Yahoo back on the growth path?

The company seems to be betting on a developer strategy, one that it hopes will drive people to use Yahoo more deeply and as an entry point to multiple consumer apps.

Whether it's all too little too late remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Yang must now put Microsoft and Google behind him, and start focusing--really focusing--on needs to be done to get the company back on its feet.

While Jobs' leadership has been described as aggressive, erratic and temperamental, it was his single-mindedness in pushing forward his strategy--design, aesthetics and functional--that was Apple's growth driver.

He stuck to his beliefs that producing products at the forefront of style and innovation would be Apple's market differentiator, and led the company firmly with the vision in mind. At the 2007 Macworld conference and Expo, he said: "There's an old [ice hockey player] Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.' And we've always tried to do that at Apple. Since the very very beginning. And we always will."

If Yang truly believes focusing on the developer community and becoming "the most essential starting point" for online consumers is the way to go for Yahoo, then he needs to drive home that gameplan and demonstrate that belief.

He must push ahead that strategy with the same conviction that Jobs carried when he sought to brand Apple as a product innovator.

That's what Yang now needs, to ensure Yahoo's survival.