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Marissa Mayer: A Case Study In Poor Leadership

In March of 2013 I authored an article predicting the demise of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Here’s the thing – not every talented, successful executive is CEO ready; Mayer is a textbook example of this. It was obvious from the early days, at least to those paying attention, that Mayer didn’t have the leadership chops to pull off the admittedly tough assignment of turning around the once iconic Yahoo brand. A question worth asking is, why didn’t the Yahoo board of directors recognize this?

Just this week, Miguel Helft authored a meaty article chronicling Mayer’s tenure at Yahoo. Helft was fair in his analysis, pointing out that anyone who assumed the helm at Yahoo had an almost impossible task in front of them. Breathing life back into a company whose business model was built for an era that has long since passed is no easy task. That said, Helft was also fair in highlighting Mayer’s dismal track record of making questionable, if not altogether poor decisions at virtually every turn.

There’s much that can be learned about leadership in any real world case study, and the Mayer/Yahoo saga is no exception. Just about any company can be reinvented and reinvigorated with sound leadership – the obvious missing ingredient for Mayer and for the Yahoo board. If there’s a silver lining here, it is this: it’s never too late to lead better. While that certainly applies to Mayer, my belief is that it also applies to the Yahoo board. Both Mayer and the board are culpable of poor leadership.

Much of my personal practice deals with CEO succession, and the misadventures of Mayer represents the classic case of picking the wrong CEO, and then compounding the error with a poor transition into the role. From day one, Mayer could have talked less and listened more. She could have taken the time to learn before acting (solutions that precede understanding usually don’t end well). She could have mended fences rather than building walls. She chose to pontificate, posture and spin rather than listen, learn and understand. One of the first things a newly seated chief executive needs to tackle is building trust across all constituencies, but particularly with the workforce. There’s an old Roman saying, “He who control the army wins” – Mayer lost this battle in the early days.

Culture is often talked about but rarely understood. It’s the glue that holds all businesses together. By all accounts, culture at Yahoo is broken, if not altogether toxic under Mayer’s stewardship. I’ve always said that a toxic culture is code for failed leadership. What Mayer has failed to grasp is that you cannot transform a culture you do not understand. A corporate culture is a fragile ecosystem with many interdependent mechanisms that must be nurtured in order to thrive. A strong culture is a performance accelerant capable of creating huge shifts in momentum. Mayer has completely missed the biggest lever a CEO has to pull – culture.

Mayer’s leadership seems to be more about Mayer than those she is responsible for leading. I don’t begrudge anyone a fair wage, but as the highest paid female CEO at $42.1 million dollars, it’s fair to question whether Mayer is worth the investment. Mayer would be well served to take the spotlight off herself, and shine it on those she leads. If you dismiss the opinions of your team, don’t be shocked when they stop sharing their insights. If the people you lead are afraid to make mistakes you‘ ll never see their best work. And if you consistently tell people they’re not leaders, don’t be surprised when they start to believe you. Another leadership miss for Mayer – but for the people there is no platform.

Another completely unavoidable mistake was not having a cohesive, crisply articulated strategy. Mayer has attempted to ideate her way to the future by implementing any number of disparate initiatives that felt like a series of one-off imposed mandates. What she should have done was build alignment around a well conceived, collaborative effort based upon an a clear vision for the future. She has experienced only tepid buy-in on her vision, and her execution has been flawed as a result. Setting expectations is gamesmanship – aligning them is leadership.

Perhaps Mayer’s biggest failure is the ability to unlearn. Many leaders are very skilled at challenging the thoughts and opinions of others, but are woefully inept when it comes to challenging their own thinking. The reality is that it takes no effort to cling to your current thinking; however to change your mind requires you to challenge your mind. I’ve believed for quite sometime the most profound and commonly overlooked aspect of learning is recognizing the necessity of unlearning.

Mayer consistently rebuffs dissenting and/differing opinions and exhibits a close-mindedness that rarely serves a leader well. She has had trouble understanding there’s a big difference between standing on conviction versus just wanting to win an argument. When evaluating a position on any given topic, smart leaders must ask themselves, are they trying to learn something, or are they just trying to justify their opinion? Having strong convictions is a healthy thing so long as you’re convicted by the truth and not your pride or your ego.

Being a CEO is tough, and no doubt, being a CEO leading a major business transformation is even tougher. I actually don’t fault Mayer for the Yahoo debacle as much as I do the Yahoo board for not recognizing what type of leader they needed for this assignment. That said, without an Alibaba miracle, or a massive change in leadership Yahoo is simply going to die a very slow and painful death.

Thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter @MikeMyatt

 

This article originally appeared at http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2015/11/20/marissa-mayer-case-study-in-poor-leadership/#104aaf7e3795

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