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Why Marissa Mayer Will Fail At Yahoo

Why Marissa Mayer Will Fail at Yahoo

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 of 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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    March 11, 2013 at 9:25 am

    These are the kinds of posts that give bad name to bloggers. There is no constructive stuff that you are suggesting that helps anyone other than the sensationalist title. I have no affiliation to Yahoo or Marissa but I can definitely see you baiting users with the title.


      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2013 at 9:32 am

      If you read the post more carefully, you’ll find several constructive thoughts – seeking understanding before implementing policy, don’t lead by memo, either/or vs. and, etc. Even if you disagree with what I put forth, it’s disingenuous to claim there was no constructive value.



        March 11, 2013 at 5:49 pm

        Hi Mike,
        I’m afraid I have to agree with the comment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of your work and consider your posts always as among the most thought-provoking. However, predicting Mayor’s downfall – even if only as provocative title – doesn’t fit the leadership thought. And yes, I have noticed the constructive pointers, but this one – kinda negative – thought is so predominant. Even if you could predict Mayer’s future, it would suit you if you’d done it more prudently. I know you’re not the kind that beats around the bush about bad leadership. And I admire that. But here is a real person involved. An individual, not a fictitious leader. Anyhow, I’m still looking forward to your next post. Keep them coming!


          Mike Myatt

          March 11, 2013 at 7:23 pm

          Hi Steven:

          Thanks for your comment. I didn’t mean to be harsh, and I certainly have nothing against Mayer. That said, it’s not good form to ignore bad leadership just because you’re rooting for someone. Anything I can do to shine the light a bad leadership may keep someone else from making the same mistakes. I hope she succeeds, but have little confidence that will be the case if she continues along this path. Thanks again Steven.



    March 11, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Mike, I think your analysis is spot on. However, and I don’t mean that in a particular bad way, your conclusions are also obvious.

    I think the real kicker is to find out why does an intelligent person make such unintelligent decisions? What are the signs that one should stop and rethink? How does a leader resist the pressure to act decisively from an uninformed position? etc. You do touch the subject briefly, I’ll give you that but I would love to hear your views/recommandations on the deeper issues at play.
    Maybe it’s not the scope of your blog, I’ll let you be the judge of that. But it would definately make for a much more valuable post, in my opinion.



    Sai Bharadwaj

    March 11, 2013 at 10:08 am

    I’m a normal person with a startup background. I have seen both sides of the table. One as a leader taking in-charge of a small team & then turning to an employee at two big companies Dell & now Amazon with relatively smaller agent related positions. Marissa’s idea of cutting down the work from home option is not a bad one ..understanding the current state of Yahoo where they are beginning to redefine themselves. This might help Yahoo generate more revenue in-terms of getting work done(Short-term). BUT, on the long run , I DON’T think this will benefit.

    Like you rightly said, imposing his/her own will on the workforce will often backfire. Understanding the long-term importance and creating a positive environment is really important. I don’t think Marissa has made a “Positive” move from the employee’s perspective and this is not a good sign.

    An employee would love to innovate & bring new ideas to the table only when he/she has enough freedom & enough “positive” atmosphere around.

    And, personally, I don’t think sitting in a corporate box with bunch of other folks trying to gain an edge over each other will benefit the company as much as an employee with the freedom to innovate from the comfort of his home or on the move.


      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2013 at 10:43 am

      Insightful analysis Sai – thanks for sharing.


    Kevin Maggiacomo

    March 11, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Kudos, Myatt…I couldn’t agree more. Mayer’s latest move – ending the work-from-home program – seemed to be more motivated by her desire to make a bold move out of the gate vs. coaching towards increased productivity…the latter is synonymous with good leadership, the former relies heavily on “hope” as a strategy.

    My observation is that narcissistic, desperate, and unqualified CEO’s will gravitate to bold and visible choices when confronted with a challenge while real leaders will go through the slog of truly treating the problem at hand.

    Mayer is unqualified given the point at which Yahoo exists in its lifecycle. Well said.


      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2013 at 10:41 am

      Spoken like the kind of CEO Yahoo needs – thanks Kevin.


    Dan Johnson

    March 11, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    I always root for people who have tough jobs, even when they are highly compensated. That said, Mayer has several challenges. First, Yahoo lands in that same mental space J.C. Penny occupies. That, “Why are you still here anyway?” place. A company we would be fine without. Second, she is overexposed. My newsfeed is full of Marissa Mayer stories. That never ends well. Third, she has the resume that gets great jobs. But a great resume doesn’t necessarily equate to great wisdom, leadership or relationship abilities. Tech people-in my experience-are not usually rewarded for their people skills.

    The now famous memo-a shotgun approach-was definitely a mistake. If for no other reason than that it came too soon. Those kinds of structural changes should be anchored in some deep relationships and understanding of the corporate culture. I can’t imagine the conversations in Yahoo homes are too positive right now.


      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2013 at 12:37 pm

      Hi Dan:

      Thanks for your comment. I particularly agree with comparison to JCP. Mayer clearly has her work cut out for her, but I’m rooting for her success as well. The thing is, her odds of success will end up being commensurate with her ability to improve her leadership acumen. Thanks again Dan.


      Allan White

      March 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      This resonates with me – Yahoo has existed without any discernable focus or purpose for too long now, and successfully neglected products & user communities that did (Flickr, delicious, et. al.). “Why are you still here, anyway?”

      Her recent performance notwithstanding, this is the real problem at Yahoo that any CEO would be struggling with.


        Mike Myatt

        March 11, 2013 at 5:58 pm

        Thanks for weighing-in Allan. Hope all is well Sir.



      April 11, 2013 at 7:54 am

      Tech people are “not usually rewarded for their people skills.” What is sad about that is the great engineers like Henry Ford built great companies and the bean counter mba’s are now dismantling them. Time to start listening to the great engineers again.


    gordon green

    March 11, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Unfortunately Mike, I think that there is too much emphasis on buy-in and bringing people with you – when a company is in crisis they need decisive leadership and frankly a good deal of turnover – kudos to Mayer for showing some mettle and if anyone has (and I have) experienced the culture of Yahoo even as an outsider they will know that this is a company that has needed a serious kick in as* for a long, long time. Judge her in a year when her approach has had a chance to work and not in the short term where the empty vessels make a lot of noise and there are a few steps backwards before the leap forward.


      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Hi Gordon:

      All good leaders have courage, but it’s the great leaders who understand how and when to use it. Leadership is more than showing mettle – before people care about your mettle, they need to see that you have a plan and that you care. History is full of leaders who had plenty of mettle, but lacked in the discernment of how to use it.


    Scott Span, MSOD

    March 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    Mike, Great thoughts. Aligns with my views on the situation and others I’ve seen: goo.gl/RZ6Up .To your point regarding “Making a bold move is not synonymous with good leadership unless the bold move is effective.” Very true. I would add, and unless the positives out weigh the negatives and the decision is informed by detailed and diversified data…otherwise it’s just like putting a band aid on a bullet hole!


      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2013 at 5:57 pm

      Thanks Scott – appreciate your observations Sir.


    Nick Whiteley

    March 12, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    I think your view seems to stem from an ideology about remote working rather than an understanding of the internal challenges within Yahoo!

    So you can’t see any rationale for people physically being in the workplace? I can, and to me its pretty obvious, the answer is innovation.

    Firstly whilst technology makes remote working possible, it doesn’t make it preferable. e.g. technology doesn’t make remote working on par with working in the office and much non-process driven communication is lost.

    Innovation requires collaboration and lots of it and what Yahoo needs right now is lots of innovation. I’m sure there are also problems with productivity etc as well, but improving productivity won’t save Yahoo!

    Secondly, reports suggest that the decision by Mayer has actually been welcomed by many employees.

    thirdly, whilst you mention Branson and Gates as critical, what about Steve Jobs who encouraged physical working (and designed his offices to better facilitate collaboration) and indeed similar approaches by Google. Both Google and Apple are rather successful – and innovative – organisations and if Mayer fails like Google and Apple, well the shareholders will be happy I think.

    I do agree with you in the dislike of EITHER/OR and I also believe in treating people as individuals rather than sweeping universal dictats. But that fact is Yahoo! is in trouble, it needs to be turned around, it needs innovation and right now “reseting” the culture is probably a good thing (later on there is opportunity to be more flexible).

    Finally I agree with you it isn’t a location issue, but I do suggest its an innovation issue and one that Mayer is right to address – and quickly


      Mike Myatt

      March 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm

      Hi Nick:

      Thanks for sharing your observations. There’s no doubt significant value exists in having people work on-site. However, that doesn’t obviate the value of off-site workers. Innovation and collaboration are not site specific issues, nor should attempts be made to constrain these practices through the use of unnecessary boundaries.

      Your are incorrect in your assumption I view this solely from location perspective. In fact I view it as more than even just and innovation or collaboration issue – it’s a leadership issue. But even if we’re to bound the discussion solely to the topics you addressed, I’d ask you to consider this; If collaboration and innovation can only take place on-site, I would suggest such an organization isn’t very innovative, nor very collaborative.

      I work daily with individuals and organizations who are very innovative and collaborative, integrating a variety of on-site and off site workers. Again, the big miss here, is you cannot solve systemic leadership, business model, and management issues, simply through relocation of some of your workforce. This move doesn’t help Mayer’s problem – it exacerbates it.


    Tali Singer

    March 23, 2013 at 8:02 am

    I agree with Nick Whitely – but also – just because remote working is banned now, it doesn’t mean that in the future, it will be the same.

    I think this ‘ban’ is just in place to bolster a culture change that will drive innovation and Yahoo into the future. I don’t think any leader, especially a new one, could effectively drive the diffusion of a new culture in an organisation without the whole workforce present and exposed to the changes. I think Meyer wants to do it properly, though seemingly stringent.

    Finally – once these values have been adopted throughout the organisation – more so than at present – I think it would be safe to say, that working remotely would become an option again.


      Mike Myatt

      April 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm

      Hi Tali – Even if her actions were guided by the motivations you and Nick alluded to, it was still done impulsively and improperly. I also don’t believe your assertion that a new leader must have everyone on-site to drive cultural change to be an accurate one. Skilled leaders can navigate logistics, environment, geography, diversity, culture, etc., without feeling the need to control everyone or everything. They understand how to set the tone from the top, and align interests and motivations without being controlling. They key to great leadership is rarely found in control, but almost always in surrender: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/12/26/the-most-misunderstood-aspect-of-great-leadership



    April 11, 2013 at 8:05 am

    Seems to me she is setting herself up for failure at every level. To begin, she’s overriding the decisions that were made by the managers who work for her and I’m also sure she’s probably alienated a large number of her workers. This may not be too good a move, especially since the economy seems to be improving and half the employees in America are already ready to move on.



    May 9, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Funny how media is people articles about what Marissa Mayer should not do as CEO! she is the CEO of YAHOOO and you write blog? you are in no position to give her any advise !


      Mike Myatt

      May 9, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      I guess advising Fortune 500 CEOs for a living disqualifies me from giving advice:)


    Lynette Schimming

    May 27, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Huge changes at Flickr and a lot of the paying members are very upset.


    kathie gallardo

    October 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Marissa has made a mess of Yahoo Groups. Impossible to Navigate. No ability to interface with Yahoo to tell them what we want. I will use it less and less because of the difficulty in Yahoo Groups to intuitively navigate. She seems incapable of listening to those of us who used to love Yahoo.



    November 8, 2013 at 6:53 am

    Formula for success. Get time machine go back to when google was hiring their first twenty employees. Be a woman (with blonde hair) in a room full of geeky dudes who never had a conversation with a female other than their sister or mother. Got it.

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