Critics spew well-meaning generalities when criticizing Marissa Mayer’s first moves at Yahoo! They fail to see the urgency of the company’s turnaround situation, the need to refocus the workforce and spruce up the management.

Last July, Yahoo! elected a new CEO, their seventh or eight, I’ve lost count. Marissa Mayer is an ex-Google exec with a BS in symbolics systems and an MS in Computer Science from Stanford, just like Scott Forstall. After a 13-year career at the biggest Cloud company on Earth, Mayer brings relevant experience to the CEO position of the once-great Web company. She also happens to be female but, unlike a predecessor of the same gender, Mayer doesn’t appear to feel the need to assert power by swearing like a sailor.

Power she asserts nonetheless. Barely pausing to deliver her first child, Mayer set to work: Yahoo! apps were too many, she vowed to cut them from 60 to the dozen or so that support our “digital daily habit“. Hiring standards have been seriously upgraded, the CEO wants to review every candidate to weed out “C-list slackers“. People were shown the door, starting in the executive suite. Some were replaced by ex-Google comrades such as her newly-appointed COO, Henrique De Castro.

The changes have been met with intramural criticism, from charges of Google cronyism to moaning over her meddling with the hiring process (“Yahoo’s Mayer gets internal flak for more rigorous hiring“). The complainers might as well get used to it: Mayer knows who she’s competing against, she wants to win, and that means Yahoo! needs to attract Valley-class talent. If she can pull them from Google, even better. The insiders who complain to the media only advertise their fear — a bad idea — and unwittingly make the case for Mayer’s higher standards.

The new sheriff is a high-intensity person. Friends tell me she also reviews new apps in great detail, down to color choices. (Didn’t another successful leader so annoy people?)

The protests over Mayer’s hiring practices and (supposed) micromanagement are nothing compared to the howls of pain over Mayer’s most controversial decision: No more Working From Home.

The prohibition is an affront to accepted beliefs about white-collar productivity, work/life balance, working mothers, sending less CO2 into the atmosphere. Does Mayer oppose a balanced life and a greener planet?

No, presumably — but reality intrudes. Once the king of the Web, Yahoo! stood by and watched as Google and Facebook seduced their users and advertisers. In 2008, in an effort to bolster its flagging on-line fortunes, Microsoft offered more than $44B to acquire Yahoo. The Board nixed the deal and Yahoo! kept sinking. Right before Mayer took the helm in July 2012, Yahoo’s market cap hovered around $16B, a decline of more than 60%.

The niceties of peacetime prosperity had to go. Unlike her “explicit” predecessor, Mayer doesn’t stoop to lash out at the protesters but one can imagine what she thinks: “Shut up, you whiners. This is a turnaround, not a Baja California cruise!”

In the Valley, WFH has long been controversial. In spite of its undeniable benefits, too-frequent abuses led to WFH becoming a euphemism for goofing off, or for starting a software business on one’s employer’s dime, an honored tradition.

Telecommuting requires a secure VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection from your computer at home to the company’s servers. These systems keep a traffic log, a record of who connects, from what IP address, when, for how long, how much data, and so on. Now, picture a CEO from the Google tradition of data analysis. She looks at the VPN logs and sees too much “comfort”, to be polite.

Mayer did what leaders do: She made a decision that made some people unhappy in order to achieve success for the whole enterprise (toned-up employees and shareholders). After seeing Yahoo! lose altitude year after year, the criticism leveled at Mayer makes me optimistic about the company’s future: Mayer’s treatment hurts where it needs to.

Among the many critics of Mayer’s no-WHF decision, the one I find most puzzling — or is it embarrassing? — emanates from the prestigious Wharton School of Business (at the University of Pennsylvania). In a Knowledge@Wharton article, scholars make sage but irrelevant comments such as:

Wharton faculty members who specialize in issues pertaining to employee productivity and work/life balance were similarly surprised by Mayer’s all-encompassing policy change. “Our experience in this field is that one-size-fits-all policies just don’t work,” notes Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the school’s Work/Life Integration Project. “You want to have as many tools as possible available to you as an executive to be able to tailor the work to the demands of the task. The fewer tools you have available, the harder it is to solve the problem.”

Nowhere in the article do the Wharton scholars consider the urgency of Yahoo’s situation, nor do they speculate that perhaps Mayer didn’t like what she found in the VPN logs. And, speaking of numbers, the Wharton experts provide no numbers, no sample size, no control group to buttress their statements. Our well-meaning academics might want to take a look at a recent blog post by Scott Adams, the prolific creator of corpocrat-skewering Dilbert cartoons. Titled Management/Success/Leadership: Mostly Bullshit, the post vigorously delivers what the title promises, as in this paragraph:

The fields of management/success/leadership are a lot like the finance industry in the sense that much of it is based on confusing correlation and chance with causation. We humans like to feel as if we understand and control our environments. We don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless leaves blowing in the wind of chance. So we clutch at any ridiculous explanation of how things work. 

Or this one, closer to today’s topic [emphasis mine]:

I first noticed the questionable claims of management experts back in the nineties, when it was fashionable to explain a company’s success by its generous employee benefits. The quaint idea of the time was that treating employees like kings and queens would free their creative energies to create massive profits. The boring reality is that companies that are successful have the resources to be generous to employees and so they do. The best way a CEO can justify an obscene pay package is by treating employees generously. To put this in another way, have you ever seen a corporate turnaround that was caused primarily by improving employee benefits?

Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of on-line shoe store Zappos, isn’t a blogger, cartoonist, or academic theoretician; he leads a very successful company that’s admired for its customer-oriented practices (culture, if you will). In this Business Insider piece, titled Here’s Why I Don’t Want My Employees To Work From Home, Hsieh is unequivocal about the value of Working From Work [emphasis mine]:

Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.

We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.

What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favors for each other because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.

Who in good conscience believes that Mayer’s edict is absolute and permanent? You have a sick child at home, will you be granted the permission to work from home for a few days? Of course. Or, you’re an asocial but genius coder, will you be allowed to code at home from 10 pm to 7 am? Again, yes. Mayer saw it done, with good results, at her previous company.

With Mayer’s guidance, the patient has been stabilized and is on the road to recovery. But where does that road lead to? What does Yahoo! want to be now that it’s starting to act like a grownup? A better portal, a place to which we gravitate because, as an insider says, we’ll find more relevant fodder — without relying on “friends”? This would be a return to Yahoo’s original mission, one of cataloguing the Web, only with better technology and taste than Facebook, Google, AOL or even Microsoft’s Bing (Yahoo’s supplier of search data).

This leads to the $$ question, to Yahoo’s business model: advertising or services? With Google and now Facebook dominating the advertising space, how much room is left?

We hear Mayer is focusing Yahoo! on mobile applications. This sounds reasonable… but isn’t everyone?

In the search for a renewed identity (and profits), the question of alliances comes up. Who’s my enemy, my enemy’s enemy, irreplaceable partner/supplier, natural complement? In this regard, the Microsoft question will undoubtedly pop up again. I doubt Mayer has the utmost regard for Microsoft or for its CEO’s bullying style, but can she live without Bing? Is there an alternative? Also, what, if anything, could a healthier Yahoo! offer to Facebook or Apple?

The fun is just starting.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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