Plea to Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer’s been in the news a lot over the last four years since taking over tech giant Yahoo. I became interested in her story soon after, curious to watch it unfold as this young woman took on a beast of a turnaround job.

Since 2012 when Mayer signed up to give the Yahoo turnaround a shot, she’s been criticized, celebratized and even infantilized by disappointed shareholders and journalists looking for their next fresh meat. Many well-respected writers have pontificated on Mayer as the new Chief, Mayer’s Boring Plan, Mayer’s Inability to Bet the Farm, Mayer and the Glass Cliff and Mayer and the Urgency to Sell. In fact, the above chronology pretty much summarizes the public story to-date: new chief, new plan, new challenges, new failures.

It’s not a surprising outcome, so why is everyone surprised? Did we think that all those other Yahoo CEOs left because they didn’t like the compensation package?

Turnaround jobs are wrought with challenge and failure. That’s why turnaround leaders make the big bucks: they are charged with not only being innovative, thick-skinned and perfect but also being these things on a very tight timeline with no sleep and lots of press.

I am disappointed in the lack of maturity of a number of Mayer commentators who have picked apart her management, business development and personal decisions in one-sided arguments that are clearly the perspective of someone who has not themselves held a turnaround job.

Take, for example, the depth of criticism Mayer received for terminating a telecommuting policy at Yahoo soon after starting as CEO while she herself was pregnant and working from home. (How many of those telecommuters do you think were also six months pregnant?) If I were her coming in to a failing tech company, everything would be questioned. I’d start with human resources: who’s on board, the balance of productivity and morale, and where there are opportunities to streamline. A company-wide telecommuting policy would most certainly warrant my immediate attention. Working from home can be quite a nebulous activity. Any reasonably intelligent leader would ask how much productivity was being lost through such a policy in a tanking company.

After all, we didn’t hire Marissa Mayer to keep Yahoo the same, did we?

She’s also been criticized for vacillating between using data and her gut to make decisions. The immaturity of this argument is overwhelming and indicates a writer who’s never been in a leadership position of significance (and who might also lack a basic understanding of the human condition). Anyone who has managed at least one other person - and, quite frankly, anyone who has managed themselves - knows that all human decisions are made from a combination of information and emotion. The complex neural network involved in decision-making is a big part of what makes us human. “Gut” or intuition, a quality often associated with women, is also proven to be a fundamental part of effective decision-making. (In fact, an entirely new field has recently emerged to study this exact topic called Decision Neuroscience which I will explore in future posts). Data is also a fundamental part of effective decision-making, and the best leader uses both.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that several critics have taken offense by Marissa comparing herself to Steve Jobs. For the life of me I just can’t understand what’s wrong with this. Any leader in her position needs a role model and who better than THE turnaround guy himself? Why are we not encouraging her to follow in his footsteps?

As I write this I am managing a turnaround job in my own organization with a new executive at the helm and layoffs looming imminently in the very near future. My last organization was also on the turnaround train. When I’m able to gain some perspective away from the daily grind of righting our ship I can find a deep appreciation for and a fascination with entities entering this state of transition. There are myriad pieces that make up the puzzle; data, emotion, timing, personalities and value proposition are just a few. Really it’s about a changing identity, and the turnaround CEO is the shepherd of the shift.

It takes a special someone to step up to this type of challenge: someone who is creative and resilient, and who is excited by potential (don’t forget about this turnaround guy). Marissa Mayer is young and has a bright future ahead whether at Yahoo or elsewhere.

So, to her critics, I say: Yes, she’s not perfect, and, well, neither are you, but I don’t see you signing up for the Yahoo challenge.

And to her I say: Don’t sell.


I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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