Marissa Mayer Is Off The Rails

In a recent NY Times Magazine piece on Marissa Mayer’s tenure at Yahoo, Nicholas Carlson has chronicled the slow unwinding of the dream that Mayer would turn around the Internet icon. She comes across as capricious, vain, and robotically unfeeling, and way out of her depth. Here’s just one excerpt, focused on her management practices.

Nicholas Carlson, What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs

Mayer’s largest management problem, however, related to the start-up culture she had tried to instill. Early on, she banned working from home. This policy affected only 164 employees, but it was initiated months after she constructed an elaborate nursery in her office suite so that her son, Macallister, and his nanny could accompany her to work each day. Mayer also favored a system of quarterly performance reviews, or Q.P.R.s, that required every Yahoo employee, on every team, be ranked from 1 to 5. The system was meant to encourage hard work and weed out underperformers, but it soon produced the exact opposite. Because only so many 4s and 5s could be allotted, talented people no longer wanted to work together; strategic goals were sacrificed, as employees did not want to change projects and leave themselves open to a lower score.

One of the uglier parts of the process was a series of quarterly “calibration meetings,” in which managers would gather with their bosses and review all the employees under their supervision. In practice, the managers would use these meetings to conjure reasons that certain staff members should get negative reviews. Sometimes the reason would be political or superficial. Mayer herself attended calibration meetings where these kinds of arbitrary judgments occurred. The senior executives who reported to Mayer would join her in a meeting at Phish Food and hold up spreadsheets of names and ratings. During the revamping of Yahoo Mail, for instance, Kathy Savitt, the C.M.O., noted that Vivek Sharma was bothering her. “He just annoys me,” she said during the meeting. “I don’t want to be around him.” Sharma’s rating was reduced. Shortly after Yahoo Mail went live, he departed for Disney. (Savitt disputes this account.)

As concerns with Q.P.R.s escalated, employees asked if an entire F.Y.I. could be devoted to anonymous questions on the topic. One November afternoon, Mayer took the stage at URL’s as hundreds of Yahoo employees packed the cafeteria. Mayer explained that she had sifted through the various questions on the internal network, but she wanted to begin instead with something else. Mayer composed herself and began reading from a book, “Bobbie Had a Nickel,” about a little boy who gets a nickel and considers all the ways he can spend it.

“Bobbie had a nickel all his very own,” Mayer read. “Should he buy some candy or an ice cream cone?”

Mayer paused to show everyone the illustrations of a little boy in red hair and blue shorts choosing between ice cream and candy. “Should he buy a bubble pipe?” she continued. “Or a boat of wood?” At the end of the book, Bobby decides to spend his nickel on a carousel ride. Mayer would later explain that the book symbolized how much she valued her roving experiences thus far at Yahoo. But few in the room seemed to understand the connection. By the time she closed the book, URL’s had gone completely silent.

Mayer thinks she’s Steve Jobs, but she’s a cardboard cut-out, a product engineer that happened to be the 25th employee of Google, a by-product millionaire.

Turning around Yahoo is an almost impossible task, anyway. As Carlson says,

Yahoo grew into a colossus by solving a problem that no longer exists. And while Yahoo’s products have undeniably improved, and its culture has become more innovative, it’s unlikely that Mayer can reverse an inevitability unless she creates the next iPod.

And buying Tumblr and hiring Katie Couric is not the same as inventing a market-defining product.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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