Marissa Mayer

On her first day as the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer entered her new offices and found poster sized photos of herself on the walls, some labeled with the word “hope.”

That was in 2012.

Now, in 2016, “hope” is no longer a word often associated with Marissa Mayer.

As the center of a whirlwind of controversy based on her career and personal life, Marissa Mayer has been mercilessly mocked.

Her laugh has gone viral and her employees have given her the nickname Evita.

She’s under fire for lavish overspending, particularly for her parties and over the top Wizard of Oz photo shoot.

Worse, more than one third of Yahoo’s employees have left, and 34% feel the company isn’t well managed. Long feared layoffs recently became a reality.

Has she met all the goals she set out for herself and the company and kept all of her promises? Not exactly.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the bad press and controversy are deserved, and that she is to blame for all of Yahoo’s problems.

When Marissa Mayer took over, Yahoo was already in a bad way. At the time, nobody had ever saved an internet company in a similar situation, and she was the 7th person to try to save Yahoo.

Over the course of the career, and probably her lifetime, Marissa Mayer has shown that she has many leadership qualities that make her an asset to any company, including Yahoo.  

It’s time to ignore the rumors. It’s time to stop the hate. 

When it comes to Marissa Mayer, it’s time to listen and learn.

Here are six ways you can follow in her footsteps and become a stronger leader: 

1. Be Driven

“I like to get myself in over my head.”  ~ Marissa Mayer

In 1993, when freshman Marissa Mayer signed up for her first computer science course at Stanford, she went to the campus bookstore to buy her first computer. 

When she brought it back to her dorm room, she didn’t even know how to turn it on.

Just a few years later, she was a head TA in the computer science department, and by the time she graduated, she had fourteen job offers and went on to become the first female engineer at Google.

By 33, she was the youngest woman to ever be on Fortune’s List of Most Powerful Women.

By 40, she had earned over $500 million dollars.

Talk about a giant leap.

Though, to put it in  her own phrase, she may be “in over her head” at Yahoo, she seems to be thriving in the challenging environment.  

2. Be Aware of Your Abilities, Strengths and Weaknesses

“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.” ~ Marissa Mayer

Marissa’s career began at Google, where her main role was to work on their advertising system. After a few months of slow progress, another programmer took over, got the job done faster, and Marissa moved on to other departments where she found other ways to make herself valuable to the company.

Thanks to what she learned in her new roles, she helped develop 75 new features and developed skills which led to the products she’s developed at Yahoo.

3. Be a Fearless Risk Taker

“If you push through that feeling of being scared, that feeling of taking risk, really amazing things can happen.”  ~ Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer dove in head first to her job at Yahoo, immediately making the decision to focus on mobile apps. She’s in the process of building a new team, and has made over 25 acquisitions, including Tumbler.

Determined to make Yahoo stand out and develop an identity, she also made the decision to hire Katie Couric at the same time she decided not to merge with AOL.

Not all of her decisions have improved morale or been without controversy.

But here’s what she has to say:

4. Value What You Believe to be Right Over Your Own Popularity

“What you want, when you want it. As opposed to everything you could ever want, even when you don’t.” ~ Marissa Mayer

Of all her decisions, Mayer’s decision to take only two weeks of maternity leave after the birth of her first son, during which she worked from home, has sparked the most controversy.

In December, when she announced that she was expecting identical twin girls, many of Twitter followers had nice things to say.

But a large percentage of the comments were downright nasty, and highlighted the criticism and judgement facing working mothers.

It’s hard to believe a male CEO would have come under the same fire.

In an interview with SF Gate, Mayer quoted Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi:

“One of his sayings was my priorities are God, family and the Green Bay Packers, in that order. [Now, my priorities are] God, family and Yahoo, except I’m not that religious, so it’s really family and Yahoo.”

Nobody questioned Vince Lombardi’s priorities. So why did so many people questions hers?

For Marissa Mayer, two weeks of maternity leave was the right decision, and she didn’t force the same way of thinking on her employees. She has actually increased maternity and paternity leave for her employees,  and provided other benefits for families with newborns, like an allowance for groceries, cleaning, and babysitting.

And she has the support of other working mothers, including Sheryl Sandberg.

Another of Mayer’s most controversial decisions was her ban on working from home.  

Though there are obvious benefits to working at home, for both employers and employees, the drawbacks for a struggling company like Yahoo outweigh the benefits.

In spite of the criticism, she continues to defend her decision, and is beginning to gain support.

As Lucy Kellaway of The Financial Times stated in a recent article:

“Why I like her so much is because she does unpopular things that are much needed in the modern corporate world. The get-out-of-your-pyjamas-and-into-the-office edict was the most valuable corrective to permissive corporate life I have seen this millennium. Working from home is bad both for companies and for workers (as I wrote last month) and she was brave to stamp on it.”

Turns out, Kellaway was right.

Kellaway’s article also has very good points about Marissa Mayer asking her top employees for a promise to stay with the company for three to five years:

“Ms Mayer’s move brings back an idea that has got lost: that executives have some obligation to complete the tasks they have started.”

She goes on to point out that being asked to stay makes employees feel valued.

5. Be “Gender Oblivious”

“If you can find something that you’re really passionate about, whether you’re a man or a woman comes a lot less into play. Passion is a gender-neutralizing force.” ~ Marissa Mayer

Does Marissa Mayer blame her bad press on sexism? Many of her supporters have, but she doesn’t.

Gender has never been much of an issue for her, and she doesn’t believe gender is relevant in the tech industry, a view in the making since her childhood.

Marissa Mayer was always strong in math and science, and, lucky for her, nobody ever pointed out that it was unusual for a girl to have the interests she did.

“I think it’s very comforting for people to put me in a box,” she says. “Oh, she’s a fluffy girlie girl who likes clothes and cupcakes. Oh, but wait, she is spending her weekends doing hardware electronics.’”

As a child, the only female computer scientist Marissa knew about was a woman who worked for the catalogue at JC Penny.

It wasn’t until she got to Stanford that Marissa took her first computer science course. When a campus reporter mentioned “a blonde girl” in the computer science department, Marissa didn’t even realize it was about her.

Not only does Marissa Mayer not complain about the difficulties of being a woman in the technology world, she never blames sexism for the difficulties she’s had in the workplace.

Unlike her former colleague Sheryl Sandberg, she hasn’t felt the need to “lean in.”

In fact, when Charlie Rose asked her about gender issues as a CEO, she replied, “I really don’t feel it.”

And because she doesn’t “feel it,” she doesn’t let it hold her back.

When he went on to ask her famous Vogue Photo shoot in the blue dress, she claimed that she never even read the article that went with it. As for the photo, she simply described it as “nice.”

She ignored the negative reactions and backlash from the photo shoot, and got back to work.

6. Strive to Inspire

“Really in technology, it’s about the people, getting the best people, retaining them, nurturing a creative environment and helping to find a way to innovate.” ~ Marissa Mayer

As busy as she is, she takes the time to speak to students and inspire others. She visits Stanford often, not just for fancy commencement addresses, but to talk to students. even features her on their “Inspire Students” page so teachers can use her as a role model.

Marissa Mayer Inspiration

The inspiration doesn’t stop with students. Mayer understands that her employees, who “want more than just a paycheck” need to feel valued. Because she believes that resentment leads to burnout, she uses a “bottom up” approach to make sure they feel heard.

According to Nicholas Carlson, author of the book, “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo,”

“In many ways, Mayer’s bottom-up style has been very effective. There’s no question that Yahoo’s product-launching cadence picked up considerably after her arrival. It used to take Yahoo a year and a half to launch new versions of Mail. Now that happens every few months.”

At Google, she held office hours for 90 minutes a day.

At Yahoo, she holds regular meetings in the cafeteria where employees can ask questions and participate in making decisions. At the meetings, she finds creative ways to present information.

One of her most famous and creative moves was reading a children’s book out loud.

The Takeaway:

“You can be good at technology and like fashion and art. You can be good at technology and be a jock. You can be good at technology and be a mom. You can do it your way, on your terms.” ~ Marissa Mayer

Would Yahoo be better off if, instead of taking huge risks, Marissa had arrived, fixed a few problems, and managed to simply maintain the status quo? The answer is debatable.

Every leader makes mistakes. Every leader is controversial. But what is pretty clear is that any company would be lucky to be run by a person as smart, driven, dedicated and passionate as Marissa Mayer.

What does the future of Yahoo hold? Nobody knows.

Whatever happens, thanks to her fearlessness, confidence, and drive, Marissa Mayer’s future is bright.

As she puts it,

“I helped build Google, but I don’t like to rest on (my) laurels. I think the most interesting thing is what happens next.”

It’s a pretty safe bet that she won’t “rest on her laurels” after her accomplishments at Yahoo either, whether she stays or not.

As Marissa Mayer takes her exciting next steps, let’s ignore the rumors and stop the hate. 

We’ll be much better off if we listen and learn. 

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