I’ve followed Marissa Mayer’s career with interest. She’s smart, bright, and running a huge corporation — Yahoo, Inc. — into the ground. Verizon decided to pick up the pieces and buy the ailing company that’s suffered five CEO’s in four years. Many wonder at the wisdom of the buyout. There are also doubts about Mayer’s future with the company, though she insists that she’s sticking around.
Mayer’s failure disappoints. There’s lots to like about her. She’s ambitious and doesn’t seem to work as an expression of feminist duty to Change Everything, but to just be an effective CEO. She’s just the type of woman executive I’d like to see more of: emphasis on the executive with the femaleness being another descriptor but not a definer.
Her executive fumbling has been painful to observe. I disagreed with her decision to bring all workers into the office. I disagreed with her policy of scooping up so many effective small technologically innovative companies for exorbitant prices and then not having the staff or vision to effectively integrate these technologies into what Yahoo offers. And now, I disagree with her about her time management and work strategies. It’s this latter problem that is the foundation for her other problems.
Marissa Mayer believes that working longer means working better. She learned that at Google, Inc. where she worked 120-hour work weeks. She says, in an interview at Bloomberg:
The other piece that gets overlooked in the Google story is the value of hard work. When reporters write about Google, they write about it as if it was inevitable. The actual experience was more like, “Could you work 130 hours in a week?” The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom. The nap rooms at Google were there because it was safer to stay in the office than walk to your car at 3 a.m. For my first five years, I did at least one all-nighter a week, except when I was on vacation — and the vacations were few and far between.
My husband [the venture capital investor Zachary Bogue] runs a co-working office in San Francisco. He runs his company out of there and other startups cycle through. And if you go in on a Saturday afternoon, I can tell you which startups will succeed, without even knowing what they do. Being there on the weekend is a huge indicator of success, mostly because these companies just don’t happen. They happen because of really hard work.
Really? I don’t believe that. Making a start-up succeed takes endurance but you can work hard on a dumb idea and spin your wheels. The idea matters. The people who are working on the idea matter. The market matters. The leader matters.
Watching my corporate siblings, there’s no doubt there’s a correlation between long, dedicated hours by smart people doing smart things and success. There is, however, a point of diminishing returns. There’s a point where burrowing in becomes insular and rat-infested. Moving around the maze and turning the exercise wheel becomes confused with actually traveling somewhere new.
Japan is notorious for having a corporate culture of coming to work before the boss, leaving after, and looking busy. It’s horribly wasteful because people aren’t focusing on the results, they’re focusing on the image of looking busy.
This is Marissa Mayer’s problem: She’s a hard worker and a plodder. She is not particularly visionary because she’s so busy being busy she’s not seeing. She may not be doing make-work and be genuinely busy, but how is she working? The values she extols become the values she models and the values her employees emulate.
A girlfriend and I were watching our youngest boys swimming. She and I see one another often because our kids share so many activities — orchestra, swimming, academics, booster clubs. It’s exhausting. She had said that she’d given her boys an article on Marissa Mayer and held her up as what it means to be successful. That stunned me. At the time, Ms. Mayer had her infant in a room next to her office and was working 20-hour days. “Do you really want your boys to grow up like her,” I asked. “Is that success?”
Our educational system rewards conformity and hard work. Obey, submit, produce copious amounts of busy work. Play your sport. Play your instrument. Take your lessons. Achieve! Achieve! Achieve! There is little time for play or thinking or reading or connecting. The kid is busy and falls face-first into bed, then does it all again.
The intellectual class have become drones, too. Breeding our kids to be functionaries and aggressive achievers stamps out creativity and any sense of the big picture. If you’re smart enough and work long enough, you too can drive a low-morale, fragile company into the abyss by just doing more and more of the same.
Marissa Mayer had a difficult task — trying to turn around a business that was already teetering on the edge. If only putting in face time and being in a cubicle next to another worker made the difference.
It didn’t and can’t. The fact is that the right people with good ideas working hard — wherever they choose — can make a difference. It’s the results, not insane hours or tightly packed cubicles that count.