Marking Territory: A New CEO’s Big Bet

Recently, Marissa Mayer, the new CEO at Yahoo, made a sweeping change. On the altar of increased innovation, she sacrificed Yahoo’s work-at-home policy.

Was it a good decision? Only time — and Yahoo’s ability to compete — will tell. But even without knowing how the story ends, there are some lessons for a leader moving into a new job.

It is natural that a new CEO wants to put his or her imprimatur on the company. A bold move to let the employees and stockholders know that “I am here and I am taking the reins” is part of the modus operandi for a new leader. After all, every new alpha wants to mark the territory. Marissa Mayer chose culture as the place to make her stand. Whether it was courageous or foolhardy to go after a tech culture sacred cow like telecommuting as a first move remains to be seen. In any event, the way the decision was implemented shows that what you do is only part of the story. How you do it matters just as much.

In the aftermath of Mayer’s decision to eliminate working from home, we have seen the predictable interviews with unhappy employees, the re-examination of working from home as an option and even the politicization of her decision as “… selling out mothers everywhere.”

With a few days under their belts, however, pundits are beginning to look at the decision in a more nuanced way. Mayer may have been trying to bring the youthful energy of younger workers back to the office where it could impact those with more traditional views. She has talked about wanting to see tenets from Google’s culture such as “ideas from anywhere” and “get products out fast rather than waiting until it is perfect” take root.

But with that information trickling out, we do not know whether to credit Mayer with careful thinking or second-guess whether all the subtlety came later. A crisper communication plan might have saved her a lot of reactive PR and second-guessing.

There are always lessons in our past experience, but a focus backward can be dangerous as well. A lot of what is successful at Google would likely not be tolerated from, or at, Yahoo.

Google’s users are willing to endure changes on the fly, redirection or even elimination of services because of the clout that Google wields. Look, for instance, at the poor product management after Google acquired Feedburner. Tens of thousands of bloggers were left without critical services that Google promised to fix and return, many of which were simply eliminated without notice. Although not embraced, the behavior was tolerated because Feedburner was still the system of choice — and it is very hard to move a blog feed.

Should Yahoo embrace the creative chaos that drives much of Google’s product management, I do not think that either users or shareholders would respond well. And Yahoo could never get away with Google’s sphinxlike, nobody-home version of support. What worked at a previous company, or even in a previous department, might not be so successful in the new one.

Remember that, as always, any asset overused can become a liability. The same political cartoonists who love to lampoon public figures have been having a field day with Mayer’s very public decision. Images of workers asleep midmorning or gaming online in their pajamas contrasted with workers trudging to the office in the guise of Volga boatmen have described the assumptions of naysayers on both sides.

But there has been some very intelligent re-examination as well. In the end, as usual, we get back to a matter of culture. An employee who is engaged, interested in his work and invested in the success of the team and company will bring his talents to bear either at home or at the office. And, as usual, there are times that the work requires being in the room and times when solitude, quiet and focus are called for.

No one has asked me, but my prediction is that in a year’s time, Yahoo will be looking again at working from home. Mayer will have proved her point
or been unable to give the culture the shot in the arm that she is after. Either way, when a decision is absolute and applied equally to unequal working situations, then it’s only a matter of time until the wheel turns.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 18, 2013.