Why Marissa Mayer Will Fail At Yahoo

Why Marissa Mayer Will Fail at Yahoo

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

Marissa Mayer is a case study in what NOT to do as a new CEO. While she’s clearly under intense pressure to pull Yahoo out of what many see as a death spiral, making rookie mistakes is not going to help her cause. Being a new CEO of a struggling enterprise is a challenge for any leader, but it’s also not a role every leader is ready for – shame on Yahoo’s board for botching the selection process – again.

I don’t often succumb to the relative ease of playing armchair quarterback, and I’m not typically one for piling on. That said, I see no indication whatsoever that Mayer is the right leader for Yahoo at this critical juncture. No one can doubt her pedigree or intelligence, nor can they dispute she brings a breadth of good experience from her tenure at Google.  But there is nothing in Mayer’s track record to suggest she was ready for this job. She’s in over her head, and perhaps a bigger issue is Yahoo’s board doesn’t seem to have a clue.

The constraints of this medium will keep me from dissecting every faux pas Mayer has made to date, so I’ll focus on the most recent. Marissa Mayer’s decision to end the practice of working remotely at Yahoo makes ZERO sense, and all the rationalizations and justifications on the planet can’t turn a bad decision into a good one. Even if I could make a case for her decision, which I can’t, she still went about it in the wrong way – real leadership isn’t about issuing regressive mandates via memo. Her decision was indicative of someone desperately seeking a solution prior to having understanding. It’s a classic case of treating the symptom and not the problem.

Here’s the thing – it’s not where someone works, but their contribution that matters. Whether working remotely or on-site, good team members should be engaged, productive, and add value to the culture. If any of these components are missing, it’s not an indictment of the platform, but it should be a reflection on the worker and their manager. Any chief executive who needs to have all employees on site in order to create a healthy culture is lacking in leadership skills. Making a bold move is not synonymous with good leadership unless the bold move is effective. Ultimately, this is not a location/logistics issue, it’s a leadership issue.

The debate about flexible working should not center exclusively on whether Yahoo’s workers should be located onsite or remotely.  This is a classic case of unnecessarily using either/or decision-making because it was fast and easy – the problem is, it was also reckless, cavalier and flawed. Clearly, not every Yahoo employee working remotely should be, but many probably should. You don’t create a healthy, productive culture by adopting regressive one size fits all policies; you do it by creating trust and aligning values.

Job number one for a new CEO is to understand the workforce, not impose their will upon them. A new chief executive must engender trust and confidence in the workforce, while going to school on understanding the culture and the business model. The job of a new CEO isn’t to make immediate radical changes; it’s to gain trust and clarity in an attempt to reach the point where the right changes can be made with the biggest impact and the least amount acrimony.  While her sense of urgency in both understandable and admirable, her lack of finesse and discernment is underwhelming. Change solely for the sake of change usually doesn’t end well.

If you have an unproductive workforce, coach them to productivity or let them go – don’t just relocate them and hope things will change, because they wont. If what you want to do is downsize, don’t draw ridiculous lines in the sand and hope some people quit, take the time and effort to deal with the situation correctly. If you want to improve the culture, don’t pollute it with unrealistic demands. Rather align your vision with the needs of the market, and then ensure the work being created is also aligned.

When people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and other storied CEOs roll their eyes at Mayer’s decision to eliminate working remotely, perhaps it merits peeling back the layers on her ability to make good decisions. If Google has remote workers who contribute, why can’t Yahoo?

I’m not much of an either/or thinker, as I tend to believe in most instances it’s quite possible to have your cake and eat it too – think “and” instead of “either/or.” The key here is to have standards, and to apply well reasoned business logic. When Best Buy announced it was going to place its flex-work plan under greater scrutiny and require workers to coordinate schedules with management, this seemed to be a prudent, thoughtful approach, and probably what Mayer should have done.

Mayer may generate a lot of buzz, and she’ll likely be able eke out a few positive quarters based on cost cutting. However, if she’s to have any chance of success over the long haul, she’ll need to understand her company, the people who work for her, and most of all, she’ll need to mature as a leader.


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