Valley Voice
How Marissa Mayer lost Yahoo

Women are not tough enough – are you kidding me? Here are a few important takeaways from the decline of a former tech icon: the loved and hated, idolized and derided Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
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Since I moved to Silicon Valley people have been asking me all the time about the lack of women in tech. Whether female entrepreneurs are just too soft for business. Whether they need help against nasty men. Or whether women are just not ready and need more Machiavelli to improve their career.

Yes, it is a disaster: Women are still a minority in tech, but that is definitely not caused by their lack of a ruthless entrepreneurial approach. One of my mentors managed her husband, her children and handled her company’s IPO – all at the same time. We never discussed what was more difficult, the IPO or the husband. Maybe that’s a question for another column.

Look at Marissa Mayer. Her struggle at Yahoo, including the rumors that she might get fired from the job as CEO, results mostly of the too tactical and rock-hard way she dealt with her staff. Former employees talk about her impatience, rough tone and preference for micromanagement. Instead of promoting others, Marissa was just promoting Marissa.

No small wonder Yahoo suffered from a brain drain. Key executives left, including Jackie Reses, Mayer’s chief development officer. In Silicon Valley the next nice job is always just a few hundred of meters away. And some of these people took a bunch of money. Former Google executive Henrique de Castro left after 15 months with a settlement weighing more than $100 million.

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Sure, Mayer, the former Google star, has been watched warily since she started in July 2012, following a row of five Yahoo CEOs in five years. Changing tack at the former internet giant was an almost impossible endeavor to begin with. Over the last couple of years the company lost its core business to Google and Facebook. It also missed building new products for advertising and the mobile era.

Mayer did not find a way out of the crisis despite all her announcements and the promising companies she acquired such as Tumblr and Brightroll. But besides building right products for the right time she also was not able to build a team within Yahoo. She was unable to motivate, to inspire, to lead. Fear does not build an atmosphere people are creative in.

Now Mayer runs out of time. In the last quarter alone her company’s revenue declined eight percent, shares plunged nearly 35 percent this year. The tax-free spin-off of Alibaba stock, one of Yahoo’s last hopes, won’t go as easily as promised to the shareholders after the IRS declared its doubts.

Mayer’s misfortune provokes a lot of jealous and even excessive commentaries, including a list of all the tech-managers that could replace her soon. Maybe she will just sell the company, maybe she will merge it with Microsoft.

Why Mayer lost Yahoo? She wanted to be too tough, too intimidating and couldn’t manage to lead. Tough alone is not a business-qualification. What is the biggest take-away for following female CEOs? Build a culture. And don’t be afraid. What about Machiavelli? He would take any cool job, even if he wasn’t ready. But who is anyway?

Es gibt auch eine deutsche Version dieser Kolumne.

Britta Weddeling is a technology journalist with Handelsblatt, Germany's #1 business daily, based in San Francisco. She is author of a weekly English tech column called "Valley Voice" and contributes every week to a podcast at a major German radio station (Deutschlandradio,"Was mit Medien").

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