Almost exactly one year ago, my colleague blogged about the leadership trials and tribulations of several high-profile CEOs and the tough issues facing their organizations. Among them, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Target’s Brian Cornell and Volkswagen’s Martin Winkerhorn. Perhaps one of the most controversial names on the list was that of Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. At the time, Mayer was in the midst of a scrappy pursuit to lead Yahoo into a new era, to re-capture its position as a market leader and to ultimately make Yahoo great again. Things weren’t going well at the time; fast-forward a full 12 months to present day and Mayer is preparing to hand over the reins once the acquisition of her company by Verizon is complete and her failure to launch is official.
Admittedly, it’s tough not to play armchair quarterback and reflect on what went wrong from a leadership perspective. However, one thing in particular stood out for me as I’ve reflected on her professional brand and approach. There were many misses and hiccups in her CEO tenure, but one critical leadership trait never seemed to shine through—humility. Arguably, there is no other level of leadership more suited for or demanding of humble leadership than the CEO level. Authentic humility underpins several crucial skills such as a leader’s ability to listen well and influence across a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Humility also fosters vital cultural characteristics such as collaboration and accountability. Both of which, by the way, enable the very type of organizational transformation Mayer was tasked with at Yahoo. Perhaps her legacy would have been defined much differently if she had taken the time to have a healthy slice of humble pie.
Instead, Mayer seemed to lead with bravado and arrogance. She was a 30-something, high-profile senior executive at Google known for her expensive tastes, lavish lifestyle and love of the limelight when she was tapped for the top seat at Yahoo. Google even had a group of PR people devoted to promoting her career. Once she was at the helm of Yahoo, she quickly made a major policy change banning employees from any and all telecommuting, claiming it interfered with collaboration, innovation and communication. It was a rather presumptive statement that directly conflicted with scientific studies pointing to the contrary. In fact, telecommuting—in moderation—promotes a high-performing and healthy organization driven by engaged employees.
Mayer’s ego also showed up in her propensity for micro-management. She once spent an entire weekend, as CEO, working with the design team on the corporate logo—weighing in on minutiae such as how slanted the exclamation mark in the Yahoo logo should appear. Perhaps her most self-absorbed and insensitive move was orchestrating a $70,000 photo shoot that captured Yahoo’s top leaders, Mayer included, decked out in elaborate “Wizard of Oz” costumes for a poster that was unveiled at the company holiday party. Timing is everything, and one has to wonder how she missed the inappropriateness of her direct involvement in anything so over-the-top, especially during a time when the company was imploding and people were being laid off left and right. “Look at me! Look at me!” was probably not a great diversionary tactic.
Admittedly speculative at this point, Mayer could have greased the gears of transformation and turn-around by spending less time submitting to the pressure of immediately making her mark and considerably more time listening, validating and galvanizing. Those efforts likely would have enabled her to build trust across all constituencies and create the foundation for determining an informed, well-vetted strategic agenda—deployed through her expertise and intellect and strengthened by her ability to humbly embrace what she didn’t know.