Friday, March 1, 2013

Yahoo! Mayer's Gonna Grow Up Fast

She's gotten everybody's attention.

But is it doing her company any good?

Marissa Mayer hasn't been the head honcha at beleaguered tech titan Yahoo for very long.  In fact, as the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, she hasn't had time to become anything like the polished corporate executive - of either gender - we're used to seeing.  Adding to the buzz of Mayer's short tenure is that she just gave birth to her first child, another unprecedented feat for a Fortune 500 CEO, and any normal person would be panicking from facing so much responsibility all at once.

So maybe that's what Mayer did when, last Friday, she mandated that, starting this June, all of Yahoo's employees start coming into the office to work.  No more telecommuting, working from home, and relying on videoconferencing for team meetings.

From now on, Mayer wants it all face-to-face.  Interpersonal collaboration for spontaneous creativity and problem-solving.  There is no "off-site" in "TEAM."

A Fantastic Work Culture?

So much for giving Yahoo "a fantastic work culture," as Mayer herself has told the media represents one of her objectives, saying she wants to make the tech giant "the absolute best place to work."

That must be on the back burner now.  After all, if Yahoo folds, there can be no Yahoo to transform into "the absolute best place to work" at whatever time in the future Mayer deems her company fit enough to relax the attendance rules.  Silicon Valley wonks, Wall Street watchers, and staffers within Yahoo itself all agree that the company has some serious re-tooling to do so it can re-claim the laurels upon which it's grown too fond of resting.  Having everybody on staff on-site should be a cheap, quick way to help make that happen.

Because speed matters.  Mayer is young, and her company is only 18 year old itself, but in its fast-paced industry, it's already a legacy Internet firm, having outlived a lot of other tech brands, and needing to find a new niche itself to remain relevant.  It remains to be seen, obviously, how effective this one new policy becomes towards that objective of relevance.

Unless it backfires, and staffers are too angry to interface productively.

All this week, responses to her be-in-the-office edict have run the gamut, but judging by the hopelessly goofy wording of the memo that leaked out, it's unlikely Mayer and her Human Resources director, Jackie Reses, expected such a swift and mostly virulent reaction.  Feminists have bewailed the irony of a working mother pulling the rug out from under the very flexibility that allows so many other working moms to be both "working" and "moms."  Companies with liberal work-from-home programs have crowed about how pleased they are that their management and workers can be so productive while Yahoo's apparently can't.  Others lament that, yes, Yahoo's desperate times call for desperate measures, but trying to staunch a trend that's so popular sends all sorts of bad messages.

Then there are the engineers and techno geeks, one of which Mayer used to be, having earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science, symbolic systems, and artificial intelligence.  Many of them are intensely introverted, and do their best work in isolation.  How is Yahoo supposed to reclaim its techno mojo, they ask, if they're all now supposed to be subjected to incessant interruptions, questions, phone calls, and meeting marathons held in cube farms or - even worse - corporate America's new "open concept" work factories, where individual earphones and white noise are supposed to protect productivity?

For its part, old-school corporate executives and Wall Street number crunchers have generally lauded Mayer's back-to-basics emphasis.  Many older business leaders have watched the whole telecommuting trend with dubious tolerance, if not thinly-veiled disdain.  "All those people at home with their cats and kids and plasma-screen cable televisions?  How are they supposed to be getting any work done?"

New Mother Walking on Shards of Broken Glass Ceiling

For her part, Mayer likely has a household staff and a nanny for her newborn son, so her responsibilities at home are pretty slim, compared with most of the women who work for her at Yahoo.  She says her priorities are "God, family, and Yahoo - in that order," and she claims to be a good Lutheran (her mother is of Finnish descent - yay!), so maybe she can prove her work ethic as being in third place behind God and family.  However, with the type of commitment she's apparently expecting from her subordinates, how easy is Mayer making it for any of them who'd like to keep the same hierarchy as hers?

Of course, Mayer wouldn't be the first CEO to fudge the lines between loyalty to company and anything else their employees might consider more important.  If a man had revoked Yahoo's work from home policy, feminists would be having a much easier time blasting him for undermining a working woman's role in her home.  Having a woman play what many consider to be a macho card doubles the irony, with not only a tech company snubbing communication technology outside the office, but a woman CEO doing it when it disproportionately penalizes working moms.

And it's not that Mayer is the type of Christian many evangelicals likely assumed her to be with her "God, family and Yahoo" quote.  She hosted a $30,000-per-plate fundraiser in her California home for President Obama's re-election campaign, and while supporting a Democrat for president doesn't mean she can't be an evangelical, she sure doesn't fit the conventional mold.

Speaking of conventional molds, it could be that not just her youth and inexperience is working against her in the court of public opinion, but her holding such a high profile and highly intense position so soon after becoming a mommy for the first time.  Most career women take at least a few weeks off, if not a couple of months, and even then, they pace themselves while ramping up their time back at the office.  Schedules, tasks, and responsibilities are usually temporarily reduced or reassigned while responsibilities at home are ironed out and the new family member gets situated.

When male executives - not to mention CEO's - welcome a new baby to their families, there isn't as much down time, and schedules are hardly changed to reflect the new father's new obligations on the home front.  That's how Mayer's tenure at Yahoo is playing out - not as the typical executive woman, but the typical executive man, and it's an odd scene to witness from the sidelines.  For those folks working on-site at Yahoo, where morale has supposedly been bad for years, it may seem more like a publicity stunt than a shattering of corporate America's glass ceiling.

Of course, since I'm neither married, nor a parent, nor a corporate executive, my credibility on these three points isn't as strong as it might be on other topics.  But for a country where plenty of conflict still exists between stay-at-home mothering and mothers who work outside the home, perhaps having Mayer be the one to so publicly make a negative point about working from home is what's stirring the pot the most.

Just within my own anecdotal observations, kids of stay-at-home moms tend to be better-developed and better-behaved, but then I do have some friends who both work and their kids are just as marvelous. And then I see some stay-at-home moms who are spoiling their kids rotten and really should be in the workplace, so somebody more qualified can raise their kids!

Old Habits By Young, Type-A Parents

Having said that, however, as an outside observer, I see gaping sexism in this parental work conundrum. What about men who work all the time?  No matter where we stand on the working mother question, all of us tend to gush over the hard-working career man who never has time for his kids, and we affirm his workaholism with platitudes about what a wonderful provider he is for his family.  Many European countries now expect men to take leaves of absence when their children get born, and my male Finnish cousin leaves work to take his kids to doctor visits and school events probably more than his wife, a lawyer, does.  Here in America, however, the mom is the one who has to figure out how to make work and home manage somehow, or ditch one in favor of the other.

For all we know about Mayer, we know little about her husband, Zachary Bogue.  Well, we know he's a lawyer, investor in and adviser to start-up tech firms, and a real estate guru.  Which means he doesn't sound like the type of guy who'd stay home and be a house-husband and clean up his new son's, um, oopsies.  He does, however, sound like the type of guy who can build some flexibility into his schedule so he can drop in on his heir between meetings and deals.  Which only means he's just as atypical a prototype for most dads as his wife is for most moms.

We Americans pretty much know what we're getting when people like Zach Bogue run things.  But we're still learning to adjust to curve balls when people like his wife, Marissa Mayer, do.

Still, it's entirely likely that Mayer will learn both at home and at work that you can't necessarily force underlings into schedules and work patterns they don't like.

Maybe mommyhood isn't that much different than being a female CEO of a legacy tech firm after all.

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