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.

How to Conquer Cynicism at Your Workplace

How to Conquer Cynicism at Your Workplace

Enthusiasm rubs off on others

A few weeks ago, I met a friend at Chick-fil-A. When it was my turn to order, I told the woman taking our orders that I am vegetarian and couldn’t eat much of the offerings on her menu. The woman asked me, “How about a milkshake? I make the best strawberry milkshake!” I could not misjudge her sincerity and pride. It’s not often that one is asked anything like that at any service-business, let alone at a fast food chain restaurant.

In a world of work that’s so rampant with cynicism, there’s nothing more refreshing than encountering employees who are engaged, cheerful, and take pride in what they do.

In the same vein, in The HP Way (see my summary & review), author David Packard and co-founder recalls an engaged worker at Hewlett-Packard:

I recall the time, many years ago, when I was walking around a machine shop, accompanied by the shop’s manager. We stopped briefly to watch a machinist making a polished plastic mold die. He had spent a long time polishing it and was taking a final cut at it. Without thinking, I reached down and wiped it with my finger. The machinist said, “Get your finger off my die!” The manager quickly asked him, “Do you know who this is?” To which the machinist replied, “I don’t care!” He was right and I told him so. He had an important job and was proud of his work.

Conquer Cynicism and Negativity in a Workplace

How to conquer cynicism and negativity in a workplace

Cynicism is an upshot of distrust in the workplace. Cynics have misgivings about their managers’ and leaders’ motives. Cynics are further aggravated by the comparatively lofty salaries commanded by corporate leaders. The once-presumed social contract between employers and employees has dissolved, and cynics believe that given the chance, their employers will exploit their contributions.

The damage of cynicism is evident in lower levels of commitment, distrust, blame, criticism, politicking, divisiveness, pessimism, negativity, and sarcasm. Moreover, cynicism worsens with employees’ age and tenure.

Here’s how to conquer cynicism:

  • Firstly, don’t be cynical yourself. If you display even a hint of pessimism, you’re likely to feed into your team’s cynicism, especially if you’re a manager.
  • Try to love—at least show some passion—what you do and whom you work with. Passion for your work brings a remarkable sense of meaning and attracts opportunities for growth.
  • Recognize that people bring their entire selves to their jobs; they don’t turn off their hearts and souls when they come to work. Today’s demanding and competitive workplace requires of employees not only stamina to work exceptionally hard but also their hearts-and-minds’ commitment to bring creativity and insight to their efforts.
  • Care for people and understand what drives them. Money is not as powerful a motivator for most people than when they truly don’t have enough of it. Beyond a threshold, people are more motivated at work by the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to a cause, and get recognition for their achievements.
  • Encourage two-way flow of information, identify and change stress-provoking work patterns, clarify their roles, convey clear and concise objectives, coach and give regular feedback.

Idea for Impact: Employees who are engaged are more productive. Determine what makes your employees most engaged in their work. Ask what parts of their jobs they like the best and what you could do to decrease their job pressures. Engage them by tapping into their natural talents and strengths.

Stop Trying to Change People Who Don’t Want to Change

Stop Trying to Change People

Change is seldom as easy as we think it will be

Consider how many people engage in smoking, obesity, problem drinking, procrastination, rage, and other self-defeating behavioral patterns. Despite being fully aware of the negative consequences of their behaviors, these people tend not to change.

Many people are unsuccessful when they try to change their own behavior. People are creatures of habit, and habits evolve over time. They become so deep-seated and instinctive that people are often oblivious to the behaviors and consequences that their habits drive.

It is therefore very hard to change old habits even when they’re bad. Consequently, people find themselves incapable or reluctant to make essential changes in their lives. They discover that habits are persistent and necessitate many consistent repetitions to change. Even when they are motivated enough to change, long-lasting change entails much commitment, consistency, and discipline.

When do people change?

The American self-help author Tony Robbins once wrote, “Most people are unhappy with some area of their life, but are not unhappy enough to actually do something about it. Unfortunately, 90% of people fall is this category.”

People typically don’t change because someone tells them that they need to. Many people change from their own accord as the result of physiological vicissitudes in their lives or from psychological impositions of external circumstances: transition to adolescence, retirement, becoming a parent, a job loss, or the death of a spouse, for example. Nevertheless, very few people change from within—deliberately, willingly, and on-purpose.

People don’t change until they think they need to

The Italian astronomer and philosopher Galileo Galilei once said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” Helping people change involves helping them want to change, instead of trying to persuade them through guidance, counsel, urging, social pressure, or other forms of inducement.

People don't change until they think they need to Therapists (and mentors, coaches, and managers) are most successful in bringing about long-lasting change only in people who are intrinsically motivated to make the change. Therapists have little success with people who have no interest in changing.

Effective therapists explore, understand, and tweak their clients’intrinsic motivations toward change. They understand their client’s motivations, listen to any reluctance about change, and sensitively try to fortify those elements of their clients’ intrinsic motivations that may favor and hence facilitate the intended change.

Idea for Impact: When people do not want to change, don’t try to change them

As children, spouses, parents, friends, managers, and colleagues we are continuously attempting to point out others’ errors and expecting them to change. Even when our concerns are genuine and our attempts to change others are sincere, we often fail to bring about real behavioral change because people don’t change until they think they need to. So, don’t try to change people when they do not want to change.

They may change in a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason or a significant emotional event that astonishes them to change, people go back to their natural state.

Harboring expectations of being able to change can only lead to frustration and futility. Therefore, as the Buddha taught, lower your expectations of people, appreciate people as they are, and thus raise your own joys. Alternatively, find the people who have the behaviors you want and teach them the skills they need to be productive.

The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Avon’s Andrea Jung [Leadership Lessons] [Book Review & Summary]

When companies do well, their CEOs are often heralded as outstanding visionaries and brilliant innovators. In particular, when macroeconomic conditions are favorable, these CEOs are sheltered from scrutiny because the spoils of their success deflect attention from their leadership shortcomings (see my previous article on how success often conceals wickedness.) When the tide turns, however, the leadership deficiencies are exposed for all to see. The CEOs are the first to get the blame, even if they may not merit it.

Deborrah Himsel’s Beauty Queen offers an insightful tale of the spectacular rise to the top and the tumultuous fall from grace of Andrea Jung. Beauty Queen divides Jung’s tenure as the CEO of cosmetics company Avon from 1999 to 2012 into two halves: Jung led six consecutive years of double-digit growth initially and then presided over a series of operational missteps that led to her resignation. Alas, Avon has never since recovered—its numerous restructuring efforts have failed, and its strategic and financial performance has severely deteriorated.

The Rise of Andrea Jung and Avon (1999–2005)

'Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung' by Deborrah Himsel (ISBN 113727882X) Promoted at age 41, Andrea Jung brought glamour, charm, and personal style to her CEO’s role. She quickly reshaped Avon’s image and articulated a powerful purpose for the company. She injected energy into a decaying cosmetics brand and pushed Avon into new profitable markets in China, Russia, and other countries. When Jung became CEO, 60% of Avon’s sales were in the United States; by 2011, only 17% of sales were in the United States and 70% were in developing markets.

Jung’s revival of Avon’s fortune catapulted her fame; she became one of America’s most recognized chief executives. Fortune magazine named her one of the most powerful women in the world. Jack Welch recruited her to General Electric’s board of directors.

Beauty Queen attributes this initial success not only to Jung’s inherent strengths in marketing and branding, but also to her right-hand person Susan Kropf. Kropf was a brilliant operations person, who balanced Jung’s acute lack of skills in running the day-to-day operations of a global company.

The Fall of Andrea Jung and Avon (2005–2012)

Avon’s sales started to slow down in 2005. And, Susan Kropf’s exit in 2006 corresponded with the dawn of Avon’s misfortunes. Andrea Jung never replaced Kropf; Avon was left without a chief operating officer.

As Avon started to struggle, Jung’s inadequate operations experience became a serious liability. A streak of self-inflicted problems resulted in strategic and operational disasters that took a huge financial toll and resulted in a flight of Avon’s top talent. Jung failed to deal effectively with failures of computer systems in Brazil, inadequate inventory and supply-chain management, poor management of working capital, and a staggering bribery scandal in China.

Jung’s lack of expertise to deliver results went up against her bold projections about the business’s future. Straying from Avon’s door-to-door direct selling roots, Jung experimented with a direct-selling channel, but quickly abandoned her strategy of running Avon retail stores. Her attempts to start baby-goods and other new product lines foundered after just two years. Avon’s many acquisitions failed; a silver jewelry company (Silpada) that Jung bought for $650 million had to be sold back to the original owners for $85 million.

Avon never recovered from the blunders that Andrea Jung presided over

Avon Beauty Products After Jung’s several turnaround efforts had failed to take hold, she resigned in 2011. Her replacement, former Johnson & Johnson executive Sheri McCoy, has since struggled to turn the company around.

The bribery scandal in China impaired Avon. In 2014, Avon settled the case with the Justice Department and the SEC for $135 million. To boot, Avon not only spent $350 million on legal fees, but also lost ground in the burgeoning cosmetics market in China.

Avon’s market value fell from $21 billion (1-Mar-2004) at the height of Jung’s success to $1.1 billion (15-Jan-2016). The company’s stock price fell from $44.33 to $2.50.

Lessons from Andrea Jung’s Leadership Style at Avon

Some of the most instructive leadership lessons from Beauty Queen are,

  • “Studying the trajectory of the Avon CEO is a great way to learn leadership. Andrea’s career … offers invaluable lessons about finding the right balance between substance and style.”
  • “Her story is a cautionary tale, one that suggests the critical importance of being aware of your weaknesses and how they can sabotage you.”
  • Leaders should know when to go. “If Andrea had departed in 2008, she would have left with her reputation and halo fully intact … CEOs that are successful early on often err on the side of staying too long.” [See my previous article on why leaders better quit while they’re ahead.]
  • Companies should pair up their leaders with deputies who have complementary skills to offset the Achilles’ heels of the leaders.

Recommendation: Skim through the first six chapters of Beauty Queen for an informative quick read on Andrea Jung’s rise and fall at Avon. Thumb through the next five chapters for an uninteresting discussion of broad leadership lessons and action lists in dry PowerPoint style.

Don’t Push Employees to Change

Don't Push Employees to Change One of managers’ most common complaints relates to their failure to persuade their employees to change.

Having high expectations of employees can lead to bitter disappointment. The frustration that comes from employees not wanting to change causes many managers to focus on their employees’ negative qualities. Such an attitude makes it easy to find errors in employee behavior, leading to more disappointment—even resentment.

Even when an employee wants to change, he often fails to because he is pulled in two directions: by a motivation to change and by a motivation to maintain the status quo. Since change is seldom as easy as we think it will be, the motivation to maintain the status quo often triumphs.

The real reason employees (and people in general) don’t change is that underneath each employee’s commitment to change, he has an underlying, even stronger commitment to something else, as identified his intrinsic motivation.

Employees Resistant to Change For instance, an employee who expresses a desire to earn a promotion may avoid tougher assignments on his current job because he may be anxious about not measuring up. This employee may not even be fully aware of his own opposition. Therefore, managers are best served by understanding what truly motivates (and limits) each employee—i.e. his elements of intrinsic motivation. Only then can managers, through coaching and feedback, impel the employee to change by channeling the levers of extrinsic motivation (rewards, salary raise, fame, recognition, punishment) through one of the employee’s elements of intrinsic motivation.

Idea for Impact: Trying to change people will result in frustration and futility. Employees may change for a short time, but unless they have a compelling reason for change, they will go back to their natural state. Managers must temper their expectations about changing employees. As the Buddha taught, one way to lessen disappointment in life is to learn to lower your expectations of others.

To Inspire, Pay Attention to People: The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect: When managers pay attention to people, better morale and productivity ensue

The Hawthorne Experiments

Sociologist Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Experiments marked a sea change in industrial and organizational psychology. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mayo led this famous series of experiments on workers’ productivity at a Western Electric factory in the Chicago suburb of Hawthorne.

The experiments’ initial purpose was to study the effects of workers’ physical conditions on their productivity. The lighting in the work area for one group of workers was dramatically improved while another group’s lighting remained unchanged. The productivity of the workers with the better lighting increased.

The experimenters found similar productivity improvements when they improved other working conditions, viz., work hours, meal and rest breaks, etc. Surprisingly, the workers’ productivity increased even when the lights were dimmed again. In fact, even when everything about the workplace was restored to the way it was before the experiments had begun, the factory’s productivity was at its highest level.

Recognition and even simple acknowledgment can give people a boost

When Elton Mayo discussed his findings with the workers, he learned that the interest Mayo and his experimenters had shown in the workers made them feel more valued. They were accustomed to being ignored by management.

Mayo concluded that the workers’ productivity and morale had not improved because of the changes in physical conditions, but rather from a motivational effect—the workers felt encouraged when someone was actually concerned about their workplace conditions.

'The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation' by Elton Mayo (ISBN 0415436842) The Hawthorne Experiments understood the individual worker in a social context. The resulting insight was that employees’ performance was influenced not only by their own innate abilities but also by their work environment and the people they work with. Mayo wrote in The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, “The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.”

Over the decades, the methodology and conclusions of the Hawthorne experiments have been widely debated. Yet the key takeaway is profound: when managers pay attention to people, better morale and productivity ensue.

Idea for Impact: Employee engagement is the very heart of effective management

Inspire your employees by asking them how they are doing. Let them in on the plans for your organization, seek their opinions, recognize them, appreciate their work, and coach and give them feedback.

Even a little appreciation and praise can go a long way to boost employee morale. The desire for recognition is a basic human need; and managers can easily fulfill this need with the aim of bringing out the best in people.

Self-Assessment Quiz: Are You A Difficult Boss?

Self-Assessment Quiz: Are You A Difficult Boss?

If you answered “yes” to any of the following questions, you need to reflect on and adjust your management style.

  • Do you give employees more critical feedback than appreciation, compliments, and positive feedback?
  • Do you undercut praise with criticism? In other words, do you deliver criticism with praise in the form of a “feedback sandwich,” undermine the positive impact of praise, and weaken the significance of the corrective feedback?
  • Do you give unfeasible or contradictory orders? For example, do you fail to give employees enough resources, time, and direction to get a job done?
  • Do you play favorites?
  • Do you reward “yes” people?
  • Do you avoid taking responsibility for your mistakes?
  • Do you focus on assigning blame and finding fault instead of fixing a problem?
  • Do you set deadlines and forget to follow up?
  • Do you micromanage too often?
  • Do you regularly coach your employees?
  • Do you invent busy work?
  • Do you stand up for your employees?
  • Are you sometimes self-absorbed and manipulative? Are you sometimes cold or abrupt?
  • Do you fail to give productive people encouragement, autonomy, and latitude?
  • Do you expect that there’s only one way to do a job, and that’s your way?
  • Do you raise your voice unnecessarily?
  • Do your employees avoid eye contact or dread meeting with you?
  • Do you act as if your team or organization would fall apart if you were to go on a vacation for a week? Do you expect regular updates from your team even while you’re on vacation?
  • Do you withhold information from your staff because it takes too much time to fill them in?
  • Do you ignore workplace concerns (inappropriate dressing, for example) until they evolve into problems? In other words, do you let concerns fester and let problematic situations get worse?

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.

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.