EBFAS Will Defeat You

No matter how intelligent, creative, or energetic you are.

A case in point: the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer.  The title of Nicholas Carlson’s piece in the New York Times Magazine from a few days ago explains why, “What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs.” (registration may be required) Simplistically, one might observe that Mayer isn’t Jobs and Yahoo isn’t Apple.  For one thing, when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, that brand still had a small, fanatically dedicated corps of loyalists around which he could re-build. Yahoo, on the other hand, gets 700 million pageviews every month, without having much of an idea why and therefore how to make money from them. So it’s a different world.

Forget the stuff about Steve Jobs. If you think in terms of building snowmobiles, you can probably find some useful ideas in Jobs’s career without channeling him for advice very night. But the big problem, as I’ve noted before, may be Mayer’s management style. In particular, it’s as if she set out to obliterate the concept of Auftragstaktik all by herself. For example:

Hours after entering Yahoo’s complex on the morning of July 17, 2012, she set up her computer to log into the company’s code base so she could personally make changes, much like the founder of a tiny tech firm might do.

[Mayer] and her C.M.O., Kathy Savitt, did some market research and found a list of common user activities on mobile devices.

By early December, one day before Yahoo Mail was set to release, she convened a meeting at Phish Food, a conference room in the executive building of Yahoo’s campus, to talk about the product’s color.

[Mayer] insisted on personally approving every hire. [Read Carlson’s article to see how good her intuitive hiring skill actually was] One executive complained to a friend that Mayer spent as much time deliberating Yahoo’s parking policies as she did strategizing over the sale of its Alibaba stock.

Not content with Auftragstaktik, she went after Einheit by committing one of the most elementary mistakes in management, but one so egregious that I don’t know any way to recover from it:

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.

Such stackings give you a 100% effective way to stamp out Einheit, and without Einheit, you don’t need to worry about the rest of Boyd’s organizational climate. It’s worth noting that the evils of stackings are well known — Deming, for example, warned of them 30 years ago in his “Fourteen Points

12. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.

Mayer’s style is sometimes called “heroic leadership,” an orientation that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.

Now back off for a moment and put yourself in Marissa Mayer’s situation: You’ve been recruited from Google because the Yahoo board knows that the place is going downhill fast and wants results. Fast. You walk in the first day and want to take charge, to lead by example, to show the board they made the right decision. So you dig in and start doing what needs to be done. No time to worry about management philosophies. Maybe after we get the situation stabilized.

Boyd does point out that effective leaders lead: “By example, leaders (at all levels) must demonstrate requisite physical energy, mental agility, and moral authority to inspire subordinates to enthusiastically cooperate and take initiative within superior’s intent.”  Part of the price is “Courage to share danger and discomfort at the front.” (Patterns 118)

Note the part about “enthusiastically cooperate and take initiative within superior’s intent.” Boyd’s organizational climate is designed to encourage just that, but those are the very things that Mayer, unwittingly or not, killed. So sure, you have to send signals to the organization that a new day has dawned (think of Patton when he took over II Corps after the Battle of Kasserine Pass in March 1943). But your Schwerpunkt has got to be fixing a dysfunctional climate so that you can get all 15,000 intelligences working on solving Yahoo’s problems, and that’s where Boyd’s climate can be an enormous help. You wonder if she ever asked herself what the other 15,000 people in Yahoo were doing.

Why didn’t someone step in and explain this to Mayer? I don’t know. Leaders in any organization — and I’m sure you have stories to tell here — will be told what they’ve demonstrated to the organization that they want to hear. Carlson doesn’t address this point, but there are a few hints:

Despite the board’s urging, Mayer opted against vetting Henrique de Castro. As a result, she was unaware that de Castro had a poor reputation among his colleagues in Google’s advertising business.

In other words, I’m the leader here and I know what we’re going to do, so quit bothering me. This is an insidious problem and unless a leader takes active measures to combat it, she will soon be surrounded by sycophants. Boyd again: (Another of the prices of leadership) “Willingness to support and promote (unconventional or difficult) subordinates who accept danger, demonstrate initiative, take risks, and come up with new ways toward mission accomplishment.”

Like most of you, I’ve worked for heroic managers. A couple of them were highly gregarious, even folksy people, and they were all very intelligent, creative, and energetic, which made it irresistibly tempting to solve all the problems themselves. But without Einheit and Auftragstaktik, the only intelligence working in the organization was theirs.

[I’ve done several posts on Marissa Mayer and Yahoo — easiest to put “yahoo” into this site’s search box.]

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