Yahoo’s Slide into Irrelevance and Marissa Mayer’s Tenure as CEO [Book Review / Summary]

Over the holidays, I finished reading journalist Nicholas Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! This interesting book offers an account of Yahoo’s steady slide towards irrelevance and Marissa Mayer’s early tenure as CEO.

“Complex Monstrosity Built Without a Plan”

'Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!' by Nicholas Carlson (ISBN 1455556610) Carlson devotes the first third of the book to explaining Yahoo’s beleaguered history and how years of mismanagement and strategy negligence got Yahoo into the mess that Mayer inherited as CEO in 2012.

The second third is about Mayer and her brilliant career as employee number twenty at Google. In 2010, her career allegedly stalled because Mayer got sidelined after conflicts with other luminaries within Google. Relying broadly on anonymous sources, Carlson portrays Mayer’s intense nature and her personality contradictions: in public settings, Mayer is brainy, glamorous, confident, articulate, and approachable. However, in one-on-one settings, Mayer is a self-promoting, dismissive, calculating, tardy, inquisitorial individual who avoids eye contact. “There was nothing especially abhorrent or uncommon about Mayer’s behavior as an executive,” Carlson writes. “She was headstrong, confident, dismissive, self-promoting and clueless about how she sometimes hurt other people’s feelings. So were many of the most successful executives in the technology industry.”

The last third is devoted to Mayer’s initial efforts to turn Yahoo around. Within the first year at the helm as CEO, Mayer motivated Yahoo’s beleaguered workforce, launched the redesign of some of Yahoo’s major sites, and made acquisitions to make Yahoo relevant in the mobile, media, and social realms. Carlson also describes Mayer’s bad hiring decisions, habitual tardiness, tendency to micromanage, tone-deaf style of communication, and dogged devotion to establishing the universally-despised practice of tracking goals and stack-ranking employees.

Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance

Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance

Anybody who follows the internet content industry understands that the principal question regarding the then-37-year-old Mayer’s recruitment as CEO was never whether she could save Yahoo. Rather, the question was whether Yahoo can be saved at all.

Yahoo has been a mess for a long time. For early consumers of the internet, Yahoo’s portal was the internet—from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, Yahoo was the number-one gateway for early users of the internet who wanted to search, email, or consume news and other information. Then, Yahoo floundered as the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft redefined the consumer internet and content consumption. Yahoo’s successive managements struggled to identify Yahoo’s raison d’etre and failed to set it apart from the up-and-coming websites. Yahoo’s management also fumbled on opportunities to harness the popularity of Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Sports, and Yahoo Finance to get advertising revenues growing again.

Mayer’s Arrival Was Too Late for Yahoo

Marissa Mayer could not succeed in reviving YahooMayer came to Yahoo with extraordinary credentials, drive, technical savvy, celebrity, and charisma. Her tenure was centered on answering the single question, “What is Yahoo? What should become of Yahoo?”

The odds of Mayer succeeding to revive Yahoo as an independent internet content company were very bleak right from the beginning, because Mayer took on an increasingly irrelevant business with very little actual or potential operating value—either as an internet content company or as a media company. Carlson appropriately concludes,

Ultimately, Yahoo suffers from the fact that the reason it ever succeeded in the first place was because it solved a global problem that lasted for only a moment. The early Internet was hard to use, and Yahoo made it easier. Yahoo was the Internet. Then the Internet was flooded with capital and infinite solutions for infinite problems, and the need for Yahoo faded. The company hasn’t found its purpose since—the thing it can do that no one else can.

Since the publication of the book in December 2014, Mayer has dedicated her leadership to selling Yahoo’s core internet businesses and its patent portfolio. Yahoo is expected to then convert itself into a shell company for its investments in Alibaba (15.5% economic interest) and Yahoo Japan (35.5%.)

Recommendation: As a fast read, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! is great. Beyond Nicholas Carlson’s gossipy narrative and his pejorative depiction of Mayer’s management style, readers of this page-turner will be interested in Yahoo leadership’s strategic and tactical missteps. Particularly fascinating are how Yahoo missed opportunities to buy Google and Facebook when they were mere startups, the rebuffing of an acquisition bid from Microsoft, a lack of strategic focus, the leadership skirmishes with activist investors, the revolving door at the CEO’s office, and an Asian-asset drama.

A Majority of Formal Training Doesn’t Stick

The Majority of Formal Training Doesn't Stick Most formal corporate training programs fail because (1) they’re not extensive enough to indoctrinate a new behavior and (2) they tend to dwell more on “doing” and less on ingraining a prescribed thought process.

Corporate training programs work best if there is an immediate need for employees to use certain techniques and tools. If more than a few days pass between training and the application, employees may not recall what they’ve learned. Therefore, training programs are most effective when they are about need-to-know-now topics and relate to employees’ current problems.

When employees try repeatedly to apply a new skill and fail, they can get dispirited and revert to their old patterns of behavior.

As I mentioned in my previous article, formal training can be very effective with a good deal of follow-through reinforcement under the watchful eyes of a diligent coach, such as a Process Sherpa.

Idea for Impact: Employees will not use a skill consistently until it’s ingrained in their work habits.

Starbucks Founder and CEO Howard Schultz’s Onward [Book Review & Summary]

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz’s “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul” is an interesting case study of organizational change as orchestrated by a passionate entrepreneur. The book covers the first two years of the turnaround of Starbucks after Schultz returned as CEO.

'Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul' by Howard Schultz, Joanne Gordon (ISBN 1609613821) In 2007, in the face of falling consumer spending and the upcoming Great Recession, the consumer discretionary sector was hit hard. Like other companies in that realm, Starbucks’ sales and profitability had dropped. The company’s stock price plummeted after Wall Street pared the rich valuations (high price-to-earning) of the company’s once-hot growth stock. Through these trials, Schultz worked at the company’s Seattle headquarters as chairman. Even after retiring as CEO in 2001, he had never left the company entirely and had even interjected often during Starbucks’ presentations to investors.

Starbucks’ financial under-performance was likely as much due to the economic slowdown as it was self-inflicted. In an apparent instance of misplaced cause-and-effect, Schultz blamed the company’s leadership for focusing too much on rapid expansion, opening too many stores, and diluting the in-store Starbucks experience. Behind the CEO’s back, Schultz started working with strategy consultants and other board members to develop a “transformational agenda” centered on the core values of the company he had founded in 1982.

In January 2008, Schultz invited the CEO home on a Sunday evening, fired him, and assumed the CEO position for a second stint. Over the next two years, Schultz rejuvenated the company’s mojo by making operational improvements and focusing on employee engagement, Starbucks’ specialty coffee products and its distinctive in-store customer experience.

Schultz’s vision, focus, and execution of this transformation makes up the bulk of “Onward”. One dominant theme in the book is founder’s syndrome—the intense reluctance of entrepreneurs like Schultz to cede control of their businesses.

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz

Towards the end of 2009 (when “Onward” was authored,) the economy started to improve. A measured recovery in consumer confidence invigorated the fortunes of most consumer discretionary companies that had suffered during the downturn. At Starbucks, customers returned to stores and spent more. Sales and profitability improved. The company’s valuation on Wall Street soared again. Conceivably, Starbucks may have enjoyed a comeback even if Schultz had remained just the chairman, retained and supported the CEO, and worked with the company’s leadership team to initiate course corrections.

That Starbucks continues to be an American success story and has done extraordinarily well to date under Schultz’s leadership is one more instance of a beloved fairy tale in the world of business—that of a company in distress rescued by the return of its visionary founder.

“Onward” is Schultz’s somewhat grandiose narrative of his return as CEO. The 350-page book is brimming with peripheral details, self-congratulatory superlatives, recurring claims, and Pollyanna-isms that are illustrative of a charismatic entrepreneur and a brilliant corporate cheerleader.

Recommendation: Skim. (For Starbucks aficionados: Read.)

Making Training Stick: Your Organization Needs a Process Sherpa

Organizational Process Sherpa

Corporate training in procedures usually doesn’t stick when the techniques learned are not immediately necessary on the job. If more than a few days pass between training and application, it seems employees cannot recall what they’ve learned.

In order for training to be effective and for employees to retain their newfound knowledge, there needs to be an element of on-the-job reinforcement. A guide can observe, correct, or commend on-the-job application of the training. This follow-up approach will solidify new information and give employees the benefits of experience.

If a certain procedure is required infrequently (say, just a few times each year,) employees may never remember it, not to mention master it. This issue may arise frequently as many organizational processes are only used sporadically.

Until a skill is completely ingrained and natural, employees won’t use it effectively.

To ensure employee familiarity with all relevant processes, even those used infrequently, every organization should consider appointing a Process Sherpa, a process guide.

The Process Sherpa would be analogous to the Sherpas, high-altitude mountaineering guides who help explorers carry loads and negotiate dangerous, ice-covered in the Himalayas and elsewhere. [See yesterday’s article for more on the Sherpas and pioneering explorers Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.]

The Process Sherpa would understand the wide variety of a company’s processes—filing expense reports, hiring contractors, searching a database of technical reports, preparing quarterly budgets, developing the annual operating plan, preparing for financial audits, and the rest. When the demands of these tasks fall beyond an employee’s understanding, the Process Sherpa could step in and help.

The Process Sherpa position could be adjustable and elastic. It could be a full-time, dedicated role, or the Sherpa responsibilities could be divvied up amongst many employees—after considering the needs of the organization and the expertise of the Sherpas in individual processes.

A Sherpa would not only assist employees, but could also improve the business processes themselves. Having personally witnessed the employees’ challenges, the Sherpa could modify processes to make them simpler and more effective.

General Electric’s Jack Welch on Acting Quickly

General Electric's Jack Welch on Acting Quickly

Jack Welch, General Electric's former CEO Jack Welch was the Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE) from 1981 to 2001. During Welch’s twenty-year tenure, GE grew into one of the largest and most admired companies in the world. Jack Welch is widely recognized as one of the greatest business leaders of our time. In 1999, Fortune magazine named him the ‘Manager of the Century.’

In an interview with Spencer Stuart executive headhunters Thomas Neff and James Citrin for the book “Lessons from the Top”, Jack Welch regrets not taking action quickly during his tenure at General Electric.

I think the biggest mistake I made is a fundamental one. I went too slow in everything I did. … If I had done in two years what took five, we would have been ahead of the curve even more.

You rarely do things too fast. If you think about your life and the decisions you’ve made, you can’t come up with too many where you said, “I wish I took another year to do it.” But you can sure come up with a list where you say, “I wish I had done a bunch of things six months earlier.”

Call for Action

Procrastinators sabotage themselves. However, procrastination is a learned behavior and therefore can be unlearned.

In all spheres of life, competition has transitioned from “big-eat-small” to “fast-eat-slow.” Good ideas are relatively easy to come up with. However, quick and efficient execution is primary to the success of these ideas. When a hundred people probably have the same idea, execution in a fast timeframe is just about the only thing that matters.

Are you holding back on your ideas? Do the tasks look daunting? Do you lack confidence? Are you uncertain of the direction or afraid of failure? How can you overcome these hesitations? Develop a set of ideas to reach your goals, prioritize them, and commence working on your ideas right away. Why delay?