Mayer’s wizard idea shows there’s no place like Yahoo

The picture of Mayer in her Dorothy wig is embarrassing, but it’s actually a stroke of genius

Marissa Mayer, president and chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Marissa Mayer, president and chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

Marissa Mayer is my new role model. First the Yahoo chief executive bans working from home. Now, according to Kara Swisher at Re/code, she has made all her top people solemnly promise that they will stick with the company for three to five years.

What’s more, she recently got them all to dress up as Wizard of Oz characters posing for a group fancy dress mug shot that Swisher says cost $70,000.

I know lots of people do not like Mayer. Yahoo shareholders can’t be all that keen on her, given that the share price is down by about a third this year.

She has also offended an entire generation of young mothers who deplore her plan to return to work at once after the birth of her twins.

At least on the latter score, her detractors are being silly. How much maternity leave a powerful woman takes should be of no interest to the rest of us.

If she wants to spend a lot of time tending to her double helping of new life, that’s okay.

If she wants to be firing off emails from the delivery room, that’s okay too – so long as she does not force others to do the same.

Why I like her so much is because she does unpopular things that are much needed in the modern corporate world.

The get-out-of-your-pyjamas-and-into-the-office edict was the most valuable corrective to permissive corporate life I have seen this millennium.

Working from home is bad both for companies and for workers (as I wrote last month) and she was brave to stamp on it.

Daring

When the story came out last week, my FT colleagues hooted with scorn and said the move was born out of desperation, a pathetically feeble way of trying to prevent the rats from leaving the ship.

They said promises are worth nothing and, in any case, Mayer herself is unlikely to be in the job in three to five years’ time, so she is in no position to be winkling long-term promises from anyone else.

These are powerful points, but I still think she has hit on something big that other chief executives should copy.

In most companies, and in Silicon Valley in particular, people switch jobs the minute something better comes along. This might be nice for them, but is no way to run a business.

Mayer’s move brings back an idea that has got lost: that executives have some obligation to complete the tasks they have started.

It seems to me perfectly obvious that if you are a CEO trying to make big changes and you have a team of overpaid executives who are meant to be helping, you need to do everything to make them stay put.

The usual way of doing that is to give them shares they can’t get their hands on for three years – a ploy that succeeds in making them stay, but at the cost of further undercutting loyalty.

If you are locked in by money, that crowds out everything else. The picture of her in a Dorothy wig is embarrassing but turns out to be a stroke of genius.

Mayer’s pledge is a good start, but for it to have any chance of working would have to cut both ways.

If she has any sense she will have made each executive believe that their contribution was vital to the success of the project and promised she was not going to fire them.

Moral pressure

They set expectations, and lay on moral pressure – which means that when people break them, there will be a perfectly appropriate chorus of tut-tutting. And that is the power of the whole thing.

Pledges might be unfashionable, but humans dislike disapproval as much as they always did.

Justifying Mayer’s third move – making her entire senior team dress up as Wizard of Oz characters in a ludicrous, pricey charade – is a little more tricky.

Fun by fiat is one of the most dismal things about corporate life, and this is a gruesome example of it.

The picture of Mayer herself looking menacing in her brown Dorothy wig is as embarrassing a corporate portrait as I have ever seen.

But on closer inspection, this too turns out to be a stroke of genius, for the motivational effect it is surely having on the company’s 11,000 employees.

Pictures of your bosses undergoing ritualistic humiliation can serve as useful lightning conductors.

What better when feeling angry than to look at them variously as cowardly lions and tin men and pigtailed girls from Kansas?

This benefit may or may not have been the intended one of the $70,000 photo shoot. But no matter. I have committed to Mayer as my new role model and I am staying loyal to her and am going to last the distance – as long as she does.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

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