Marissa Mayer Got It Right

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Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!

When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer sent out her controversial memo on February 22nd telling remote employees that they had to begin working from the office it was met with strong criticism from a large portion of the tech public. Her employees are reportedly “very upset” and even Virgin Founder Sir Richard Branson weighed in on the Virgin blog insinuating that Marissa doesn’t trust her staff and that this move is a step backwards. Even J.J. Colao, CEO of oDesk, voiced in on Forbes making points from the reduced cost of remote employees to the advantages in the war for talent. They’re both wrong.

It’s Nice To Be A Founder

It’s great to be able to give your employees flexibility, and kudos to Richard for doing so, but that requires knowing your employees and them having a clear understanding of who’s in charge. In some organizations it works and one of the key ingredients for that success is right in Sir Branson’s title: Founder. He built his company from a single store. He hired people he trusted who in turn, hired people they trusted and so-forth. Marissa didn’t have this perk.

When she took over the CEO role at Yahoo! in July of 2012 she took charge of a company that had seen five CEO’s in three years, share prices at $15.65, down from the $31 Microsoft had offered in 2008 and declining market share. Something was and still is very wrong at Yahoo! It seem that Ms. Mayer didn’t have the luxury of controlling who was under her employ as Sir Branson did and, as she’s known to do, needed to make quick and decisive changes. This is what she was hired for.

Understanding Bias

Bias is an understandable trait in humans, we all have it. When Mr. Colao wrote of his concerns about the change at Yahoo! I have no doubt he was speaking in earnest, at least from his perspective. What’s important to remember however is that he, like you and I, is biased by self-interest. He’s the CEO of oDesk. oDesk is a company built on connecting people with remote contractors to fill specific roles.

Essentially, Mr. Colao has an entire company built on connecting remote workers with jobs and thus, is inherently biased against the policy enacted by Yahoo! It’s an understandable bias but we must take his opinion on the subject with a grain of salt.

Yahoo! Is Broken

I touched on it above but a point that very much needs to be understood is that Yahoo! is broken. With a variety of properties that don’t generate revenue, search that’s powered by a smaller and newer engine (Bing), a deal with Microsoft that’s reportedly not generating the revenue it needs to, and a litany of other concerns, big changes need to be made. To that end, she’s selling off properties, looking into partnering with Google over Microsoft and yes, changing the corporate culture. Good call.

Let’s put ourselves in her shoes for a moment, from just the perspective we’re focused on here and that’s corporate culture and the ability to work from home. Let’s imagine that we just took over a company and in that company were a range of skills and talent but you knew none of them. Let’s imagine that said company is far too large to know each person individually and let’s go even further and imagine that we are virtually certain that some of our staff members are amazing while others are costing money and producing little in return. What do you do?

Let’s imagine that we’re trying to completely reinvent what our company is, draw it out of the ashes like the overused proverbial phoenix, and to do so we need to know, without question, that everyone under our employ is intelligent, working hard, and dedicated to the massive task at hand. And let’s assume we don’t just want to lay off another 2,000 people. What do you do?

You Go Back To Basics

Massive layoffs aren’t good for business. Running at a loss is even worse. What Ms. Mayer is doing here is, in fact, the epitome of capitalism and that is to go back to its core principle: Darwinism works. The weak will perish.

If you don’t know who’s productive and who isn’t at an organization and you’re the CEO, it’s your duty to find out. The employees who have the most problems with it will be those who don’t want to be watched, who don’t want their work monitored. Essentially, the first to leave will be the weakest. Try to tell me that the employees at Yahoo! don’t need to collaborate and work in teams and I’ll chuckle. And tell me that it doesn’t create a more cohesive unit to collaborate together, in the same space where simply walking down a hall or turning your chair doesn’t get answers faster and I’ll reply by asking why you even bother to go to a pub with friends or gather for a family reunion. If the same interactions, connections and cohesiveness can be formed remotely, why do we even leave the house? Why not grab a few beers, turn on Skype and save yourself having to leave a tip? Because team units and communications aren’t as successful remotely, that’s why. And Marissa knows this.

Let’s Call A Spade A Spade

The key argument made against this move seems to be that it stifles creativity. No, it doesn’t.

The spoiled belief in the tech realm that we’re straight out of “A Beautiful Mind” and need our genius to be pampered, on a comfy couch – but not Yahoo!’s comfy couch, only the one we bought will do, is just ludicrous. Let’s be honest, we are not that special. I know, I’m part of the tech community, and I’m CEO of my company; but when I need to get stuff done, I go to the office. Why? Because the people I need to work with are there, when I need to ask a question the answer is just a few steps away and because an office offers fewer distractions than a house. My house is filled with the fun distractions I like, my office is not.

And let’s also remember that Yahoo! is not some fortress of despair. They have massage, food, fitness centers, hair salons and even a games room. Need some R&R? It’s there. They just want to know when you’re on R&R and when you’re working. Is this some crazy new idea in business? Is it really unreasonable for an employer to want to know when the people they pay are working and when they’re playing on company time? Personally, I think not.

You Can’t Argue With Success

But in the end sometimes you just have to trust your leader. Let’s just consider this, since she took over last year Yahoo! share prices have gone from $15.65 to $20.76. Can she be trusted to make solid decisions even if they’re not fully understood? Yes.

Let’s also consider that Marissa Mayer needs to stamp on this company an undisputed “I am the boss” and this initiative does that like few others could. She is changing the lives of her employees and adjusting how and where they work. If there was a debate about her strength and influence as CEO, there is none now. She will do what she feels is the right decision, she will do it unilaterally, and she will do it with authority. The weak will hate it and complain, the strong may not love it but will feel a firm hand at the helm and while they may resent that they have to drive to their office, they will do so with the security of knowing that they have an office to go to.

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