The Firefighter

Marissa Mayer has the potential to rescue Yahoo – not despite her pregnancy, but precisely because of her ability to master several challenges at once.

Who remembers how big Yahoo once used to be? The company towered high above the competition in the early years of the internet. Not unlike the Spanish armada, however, Yahoo soon became too big and too sluggish to compete with quicker, more agile challengers. By constantly increasing its portfolio of services, Yahoo lost sight of what it did well. And when the former mother ship started to sink, Marissa Mayer stood on the shore and watched with glee: As a Google veteran and the brain behind the company’s minimalist design, Mayer herself could claim to be partially responsible for Yahoo’s decline.

Today, Yahoo is betting on her to rescue its stagnating business. Few people would have expected that a company like Yahoo could snatch Mayer away from Google’s dynamic executive offices. But the most remarkable aspect of the story might be Mayer’s career itself. Journalists are now seizing on her age (she’s only 37!) or her pregnancy (three months until birth!). In doing so, we tend to overlook the determination with which she ascended through the ranks in the male-dominated internet industry. Her success cannot be explained without recognizing her seeming omnipresence, her team management skills and her obsession with detail. And it shows just how well women like her can do in internet enterprises.

Two years ago, I heard about Marissa Mayer when a colleague of hers sent an open letter of resignation to Google. His farewell message – obviously typed during a fit of frustration – indicated that Mayer’s design team had driven him to the brink of madness. He confirmed a report in the “New York Times”, which had claimed that Mayer had presented her team with 41 different shades of blue and tasked them with laboring over the right color combination for Google’s Gmail service. Her obsession with detail was what led to his eventual resignation.

Well: 41 shades of blue might seem a bit excessive; they indicate a world view where clicks triumph and where success or failure can hinge on the smallest of details – not unlike the world view of Steve Jobs. But isn’t that precisely what a tainted company like Yahoo needs to fight its way out of mediocrity? Few headlines have emanated from Yahoo’s headquarters in recent months – the notable exception was the scandal that forced Mayer’s predecessor to resign -, but the company still has a stake in many digital markets. The photo platform Flickr is symptomatic for Yahoo’s dilemma: Flickr occupied an important niche before any large competitors emerged, attracted a large number of devoted followers, and drifted into obscurity soon after Yahoo had acquired it. As a result, Flickr missed just about every significant trend in recent years and only survived because of the continued loyalty of its early adopters. Flickr user groups have already launched online actions to remind Mayer of their continued existence. For a company like Yahoo, their worth is incalculable.

If Mayer is to succeed at rescuing Yahoo, she must build her career on the recognition of those loyalties. Like Meg Whitman at HP or Virginia Rometty at IBM, Mayer is a female fire fighter is an industry dominated by men. Her leadership abilities and her willingness to administer radical change is suddenly in high demand after years of stagnation.

One has to applaud Yahoo for its courageous hiring decision. The company could have easily settled for yet another guy in a suit. Mayer is the second woman to lead Yahoo. But while the tenure of Carol Bartz was marked by layoffs and a sense of “fear and uncertainty” among Yahoo’s employees, Mayer was hired to beef up Yahoo’s management and drive product innovation.

The “International Herald Tribune” has described Yahoo’s executive post as a “revolving door”: In the past five years ago, five different managers have tried to steer the company back into calmer and more productive waters. But if we can trust someone to break the cycle and modernize Yahoo, it’s a strong woman like Mayer – not despite her pregnancy but precisely because of her ability to fill the dual role of CEO and mother. Yahoo’s challenges require courage – and Mayer’s biography indicated that courage isn’t something she’s lacking.

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