Kara Swisher

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People Networks President Joanna Shields Leaving AOL (With Full Internal Memos)

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According to an internal memo obtained by BoomTown, Joanna Shields, who came to AOL via its troubled acquisition of the Bebo social-networking site, will be returning to London to spend more time with her family and to “pursue entrepreneurial interests.”

(She is pictured here with former AOL CEO Randy Falco and former AOL President Ron Grant after Bebo was bought in 2008.)

Until recently, People Networks has been the third leg of the Time Warner (TWX) online site’s businesses, which also include advertising and content.

But under new CEO Tim Armstrong, who was one of the top sales execs at Google (GOOG), AOL is largely abandoning its business-unit approach for a more functional and centralized structure.

Armstrong is prepping AOL to be spun off, and has been trying to shape it into a more streamlined organization focused on core assets but run in a more top-down fashion.

Bebo has always been a thorn at AOL, since it was acquired for $850 million last March. It was a huge price for the social-networking site, which was much smaller than leaders Facebook and MySpace.

Ironically, Shields, who negotiated the deal, got a lot of internal flak for getting that much for Bebo. That doubtlessly got worse after both top AOL execs who bought it from her, Falco and Grant, got pushed out in favor of Armstrong.

Under Shields, People Networks–which also includes AOL’s AIM and ICQ instant messenger services–has been introducing a variety of social products and updated offerings.

It is now poised, as you can read in Shields’s memo below, to release a new version of AIM and ICQ.

Here’s Armstrong’s full memo to the AOL troops below, as well as Shields’s memo to her staff:

Team -

We’re now near the half-way mark of our 100 Day Plan, and we’re making good progress in putting together the details behind the strategic priorities I talked with you about two weeks ago. I’m looking forward to speaking to you more about this later this week at a company All-Hands on Friday.

In the meantime, I want to update you on some organizational news. Joanna Shields has decided to step down from her role as President of People Networks/EVP of AOL and return to London to reunite her family and explore her entrepreneurial interests. At her core, Joanna is a start-up executive, having taken numerous companies through the process of rapid growth and acquisition.

Following the company’s acquisition of Bebo last year, where Joanna served as chief executive, she moved to New York to help AOL unlock the value of our social assets and re-establish AOL as a leader and innovator in the area of social networking and communications–two areas this company pioneered. The result was numerous innovations in AIM and ICQ, the launch of Socialthing, along with continued upgrades to Bebo. I’m happy to say that Joanna will continue to serve as an advisor to the company working with our acquisitions and new ventures, so while we won’t be seeing her on a daily basis, she will remain an important member of the AOL family.

Joanna is a very strong and well-known entrepreneur and has been a very valuable member of our executive team. Please join me in thanking Joanna for her many contributions and wishing her safe travels as she moves her family back to London–TA

Dear Team,

I wanted to let you know that after much deliberation and with a heavy heart I have decided to move on from AOL. I am returning home to London to reunite with my family and pursue my entrepreneurial interests.

It has been a remarkable year and I feel incredibly lucky to have spent this time with you. I have been blessed to be part of many success stories in the past from RealNetworks and Google through to Bebo and my time with you at AOL will go down as one of my proudest.

People Networks was born a year ago to solve some of the toughest problems facing online consumers today. Despite (and perhaps because of) all the innovation we’ve seen in the last few years there are too many online services to monitor, too many profiles to manage and too many “social graphs” to maintain. The web is an amazing platform for content, community and communications, but these three rarely happen in one place, resulting in online conversations that are fragmented and disconnected. Our vision was to connect people with everyone and everything they care about and through a combination of great talent, hard work and brilliant assets we managed to create some amazing experiences to do just that.

We started with our industry-leading products AIM and ICQ and are now just about ready to re-invent instant messaging as the world knows it to become the default product for both private and public conversations and social and status updates. We leveraged the incredible passion and talent at Bebo, launching numerous innovations and expanding into 7 new countries while maintaining our leadership in user engagement and innovative monetization. And finally, we assembled a small, yet powerful group of entrepreneurs, to build a platform for socializing the web in record time, receiving rave reviews from publishers and partners working with the Socialthing team. I can’t wait for the world to get a glimpse of our new client this summer combined with the evolution of Socialthing as it finally creates a way for conversations and social interactions to happen anywhere on the web.

You should all feel proud of your role in our success.

I wanted to say thank you for everything I’ve learned from you this past year. I loved the fact that we challenged each other every day, from our offsites and product summits to our Thinktanks and day-to-day meetings. In the end we came up with phenomenal products that will make a lasting impact–and we are just on the verge of revealing these plans. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to think with all of you, to break down the barriers of the old ways, to innovate again and to re-invigorate this company. I believe in you and I am so very proud of you all. Don’t let the constant swirl of changes around you take you off course. Feel confident about the decisions we have made and the path we are on. Stay focused on delivering the products you believe in and I know you will win.

I leave you in capable hands with Tim and I know he will continue to support you. I remain, as always your friend.

Joanna


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