March 7, 2013


CLICK for a full bio of Yahoo! president and CEO Marissa Mayer


Meet Marissa Mayer, a cautionary tale in the making. Don’t let the warm smile and sparkling eyes fool you. She’s what happens when an apple falls far from the Google tree, rolls down a storm drain and settles under that withering Yahoo! bush. You know, the one clinging to life in the sunlight deprived corner of the internet garden.

It’s been almost two weeks since  Silicon Valley flipped out over a leaked memo from Yahoo! HR big wig Jackie Reses. Buried deep in a shit pile of sunshine and roses was the lead. In short, scrubbed of the HR warm and fuzzy, if you currently work for Yahoo! from a remote location, one of the following will be changing in June: your location or your employer. Cue lead balloon.

To be fair, it doesn’t take much to raise hackles in the ol’ SV but this particular story took on a life of it’s own and went global. Of course, Reses was merely the messenger, delivering a decree handed down from the ivory tower of Marissa Mayer, newbie president and CEO of beleaguered media company Yahoo!. In her infinite wisdom, Mayer decided an “all or nothing” policy regarding working from home was the best way to deal with a mountain of bad morale, poor productivity and the general uselessness of pretty much anything Yahoo!. Apparently her 13 years at Google translated into a mind set as convoluted and ass-backwards as the mobile platform she helped build.

Since her decision to call all worker bees back to the Yahoo! hive, the chatter on Mayer has been spewing from two camps: the bigger and louder voices have chewed her up and spit her back out. In this version of reality, Mayer is a cold and calculating bitch on wheels. A bean counter who thinks what is good for her goose is not something to be shared with all the little ganders in the flock. A smaller cadre has rallied around Mayer, calling her decision some version of “brave/bold/decisive.”

Personally, I think both groups have it wrong. Mayer is neither hero nor villain. She is merely another in a long line of CEO’s who simply don’t get it. It’s a combination of tin-eared imperiousness, tone-deaf hypocrisy and a decision making process fueled by the panic that ensues when you take over a company teetering on the edge of oblivion. You can also throw in the ego stroke that comes from having your underlings just outside your door, available to shout “how high” when you say “jump.” Making this a uniquely bizarre “only in the tech world” oddity is the fact that a company like Yahoo! is scuttling working remotely. Last time we checked, the mobile office and lifestyle platforms are both important pillars to future of the Yahoo! brand. You don’t see Apple pushing iPhones in the press while instituting a landline-only policy in Cupertino. Just saying, it’s an odd call even by Yahoo! standards.

I don’t envy Mayer. She’s the latest muckety muck coupled to the Yahoo! executive train wreck (plus here and my favorite one here). If she keeps it up, she just might be the caboose. What a company like Yahoo! needs is a tough, visionary and inspirational leader. An individual willing to trim the fat (and dead weight) while also making it clear that he or she understands the company from the ground up. It’s a tricky balancing act that requires juggling humanity, humility and honesty while maintaining an unflinching fix on the light at the end of the tunnel. Ultimately, you need a CEO who can rally the same troops he or she is shaking up and shaking out.

Mayer is undeniably smart and talented but that doesn’t make her the right person for the job. Book smarts rarely translate into street smarts and Yahoo! needs someone with that cred. Hint: a former engineer does not a CEO make. In fact, very little of what Mayer has done since taking the reigns points to her being the salvation of a once great brand. Free meals and cozy sit downs will only take the company so far.

Even if she was 100% right in her thinking, there is no way on earth anyone paying even a bit of attention could envision a scenario under which the Reses memo wouldn’t turn into a nightmare. When your people are down, a kick in the teeth is NEVER the way to perk them up. Even if you deploy every semantic contortion available, what amounts to a take away (and, in the case of Yahoo!, an entrenched employee perk) is going to be hugely unpopular. When coupled with the appearance that the decision is devoid of rhyme, reason and compassion, you have an internal and external PR crisis to deal with. Insult, meet injury.

I have no doubt that there is considerable dead weight and poor productivity in the Yahoo! ranks. If there wasn’t, the company would be sitting pretty. It isn’t. At the same time, why would you anger both the good employees and those who should be shown the door? Where is the case study proving that a former work from home deadbeat, when anchored to a cubicle, blossoms into a model employee? Why create a policy that penalizes everyone and perpetuates the very mindset that contributed to the decline of the company in the first place? Why? Because it’s the path of least resistance. It requires zero creativity and virtually no heavy lifting on the part of higher ups. It’s what a smart person does when they are low on executive savvy and oblivious to the reality going on just outside their well-insulated suite.

Making matters worse for Mayer, developments since “Memo-Gate” have not exactly played in her favor. Sure, some have jumped to her defense and pulled out the gender card. I’d be more willing to entertain the anti-woman meme (which, it should be noted, IS a legitimate problem in Silicon Valley) if Mayer didn’t show an uncanny talent for playing into the hands of her harshest critics. Start with the revelation that, in the same breath as denying new Yahoo! mommies the ability to work from home, Mayer had a nursery built next to her office so she could care for her newborn son. True, Mayer covered the cost of building the nursery but what percentage of the Yahoo! masses could afford such a luxury (if they were accorded similar privileges) and what kind of message does such an expenditure send? Adding to the the veneer of overpaid excess came news today that Mayer received a $1.1 million bonus for five months of work in 2012. It doesn’t matter if she deserved it or not, it’s a story that perpetuates an unflattering narrative.

For shits and giggles, let’s give Mayer the benefit of the doubt and pretend this brouhaha was just a tempest in a teapot. If she’s such a cracker jack CEO, what the heck was Mayer thinking (or not thinking) when she blew a potential publicity coup recently? In what is already being called a major strategic blunder, the Yahoo! CEO decided to appear on the TODAY SHOW day and date to the massively hyped return of Robin Roberts to GOOD MORNING AMERICA. It just so happens that one of the major success stories in the Yahoo! hopper is Robin’s Journey, the popular GMA blog that chronicles Robert’s battles with cancer. In fact, I linked to the blog last week in a tribute to Robin Roberts. What better platform for Mayer to announce new Yahoo! product launches than on GMA, their partner in an existing and thriving co-branded venture? To make matters worse, it appears as though no one from Yahoo! or Mayer’s office picked up the phone and asked to appear on GMA, a request that ABC reps said would have been enthusiastically embraced.

It’s a mind boggling oversight and does little to bolster the Mayer brand. One also has to wonder what fate would have befallen an underling if they made a mistake of similar magnitude. Clearly Mayer working from the Yahoo! campus didn’t improve her strategic thinking here. Of course, it doesn’t seem like she worries all that much about rules she imposes on others also applying to her.

Bottom line, I would love to be proven wrong regarding Mayer. I would happily eat a helping of crow and be the first to offer hearty congratulations if she is able to right what has been a very stubborn ship. Mayer is by no means an island unto herself and it’s only fair to note that there are circumstances in play that are simply beyond her control. Still, her actions and missteps do have consequences that reach far beyond the Yahoo! campus. Certainly its no coincidence that Best Buy, itself mired in a mass of red ink and profit woes, just announced that working from home would soon be a no-no. Rather than Yahoo! setting an example worthy of following, it appears to be another disappointing case of the blind leading the blind. That’s not something to cheer about.