Leadership, Culture and the Situation of Marissa Mayer

marissa_new4Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, sent a shock wave across the internet and the blogosphere last weekend when she announced that Yahoo’s policy of allowing people to work remotely would be ended, and that remote-working employees would need to begin reporting to the office by June 2013.

The debate has raged over the wisdom of the move, with a heaping ton of criticism coming from culture-change advocates who point to research indicating that remote work programs are beneficial, while the other side of the coin points to lost engagement and productivity.  A short, quick summary of the debate can be found over on the Huffington Post:

What I find interesting is that, in an era when so many are advocating culture as the basis for an organization’s effectiveness, as well as the need for leadership to take charge of establishing that culture, that so much criticism is being thrown at Mayer for her decision.  All this even as some insiders report that the move was utterly necessary because the work-from-home policy had created more problems than it solved, and the abuses of the policy were significant.

All of the admonitions and warnings and tirades thrown at Mayer, or in support of her, all seem to be coming from outside the company – by folks who have a voice, but who are not, necessarily, informed.  Like them, I do not know Marissa Mayer.  Unlike them, however, I won’t assume that she’s a short-sighted crazy person or an idiot.  Her ideas do have some merit, even if we disagree with them.

What’s daunting, however, is what we are seeing is a high-profile CEO doing what everyone is demanding of high-profile CEOs – to take bold steps and to lead an organization through the establishment of a company culture.  If Mayer believes that her organization will perform best when people are interacting face-to-face, then she must act with integrity and follow her beliefs by bringing that dynamic into her organization.  It has become the stuff of many an article and business school essay at places like Facebook and Google.

Of course, that’s also exactly where the problem lies.  Mayer is attempting to benchmark against other organizations and believes that worked over there will also work at Yahoo.  That’s a bit short-sighted, however, it’s also the exact same dynamic being offered by her critics – finding the best case example of a situation just like your preferred alternative, and then using that as evidence that the alternative is the right one.  For example, the creators of ROWE responded to Yahoo’s policy decision with an Open Letter to Marissa Mayer, citing The Gap as an organization that has done well by implementing ROWE.  Unfortunately, you can’t claim the Gap’s implementation of ROWE was a success and ignore the fact that performance at Best Buy, where ROWE was created, just sucks.

Likewise, you can’t say this was the right move and not wonder why there was not a declaration of the need to identify the root cause of these behaviors.  If people are abusing the system and failing to collaborate – face time might not be the root cause.  There is likely something else going on.  Perhaps that something else can be attended to by having people co-located, or maybe not.  Fact of the matter is, none of us knows for sure, and all anyone is contributing is an opinion, if not an agenda.

There is clearly a clash of cultures occurring as well, as most of the criticism is coming from tech/software/internet company founders and their employees who have embraced remote work.  Others outside of the tech community are much more supportive of the move.  If we believe the insider’s view, then this was the right move for Yahoo at this time – and maybe it is, or maybe it is not.  What the critics themselves should be chastised for is campaigning for executives to lead and set the tone within their organizations and then criticize those same leaders for not setting the tone the critics preferred.

The truth is that no one knows if this will be the right move.  It is, quite clearly, going to be something of an experiment.  Those who believe remote work, in general, is a good thing based on their experience or beliefs and, therefore, a good thing for Yahoo are about to have that hypothesis tested.  On the other side of the debate, those who advocate face-to-face interaction as the core that fuels innovation, will also have their theory tested.  What all must do now is what everyone who has conducted an experiment must always do – establish the parameters of the experiment and observe the results.

If Yahoo’s performance improves over time then we will have evidence over which to debate this decision, and not just relentless opinion.  If, however, it turns out that the performance of the company declines, then we’ll know that the performance problem was not due to attendance, but to other, deeper flaws in the management of the company.  Either way, some years from now when the evidence is available, I suspect no measure will be given to the dynamics of the system and I’m certain Marissa Mayer will either be celebrated or blamed.

From The Onion: Intern disrespects self

Office_job__stressful_job_by_FriXedAirwave

Office job stressful job by FriXedAirwave

A great post on the Onion depicts the plight of interns at Fischer Marketing.  According to the article, “Supervisor Encourages Interns To Take On More Responsibilities Of 3 Full-Time Staff Members” the interns were told that the best way for them to get the most out of their internship was to take on as many duties as possible.  The article goes on to focus on the fact that the interns, who are working for free, are encouraged to do the work normally assigned to employees earning $60,000/year or more.  Of course, although no one will directly state that it’s mandatory, you definitely get the sense that any poor intern who decides not to take on tons more work, with no monetary compensation to begin with, simply isn’t working hard enough to get the most out of the internship.

Of course, the article is a bit of a farce – this is The Onion after all.  Nonetheless, there were some all-too-real takeaways that came to my mind:

  • This is a company focused on reducing cost, not on delivering value.  Why on Earth would you want to have the most inexperienced workers in your organization doing tasks that are well above their skill level?  Doesn’t that just result in a lousy product?
  • No one is actually giving the interns any direction.  It’s just a “Hey there’s something that needs doing and maybe you can go and do it.”  The situation is most acute when it comes to interns who have little experience to draw from at all, but I’ve seen plenty of people who are left to flounder when assigned something new.  Of course, these folks either give up, burn out, or learn to game the system.

And, probably a few other instances of disrespect scattered throughout the story.  I shared my thoughts on the difficulties of being an intern in some comments I left on the Catch Careers blog.  In short, that interns are often left to bear the brunt of management styles that do more to de-motivate employees than to ensure motivation.

The really depressing thing, however, is that for every person who looks at the situation and sees ridiculous management abuses, there is at least one more who believes that the situation is normal and it is the responsibility of the intern to learn how to withstand the slings and arrows of such outrageous fortune.  Simply put, there are interns who want nothing more than the chance to demonstrate just how much Bullshit they can tolerate, because they believe that’s what work is – and that they should be investing both their time and effort into Bullshit, with no realization that their time could be spent on something useful and productive.

 

So what if it’s important?

office_work_by_linni_fight

office work by linni fight

I wish I had a nickel for every time some new initiative was rolled out, sometimes with mandatory attendance at grandiose presentations proclaiming the utter importance of the initiative to the future survival of the company.  If I did have a nickel for every one of those, I’m certain to have a whole lot of nickels.
Unfortunately, asserting that the reason for change is  important violates the Fat Smoker principle, as I like to call it, which was a term coined by David Maister.  Essentially, it is the awareness that although we know what the problem is, we rarely address it, no because we don’t know what the right thing to do is, but because in order to get to something good we must first go through something difficult.  Here’s a video of his thoughts on being a Fat Smoker:

 

Knowing that something is important is only necessary for change to occur.  It is not sufficient for full, genuine adoption of new behaviors.  In order for people to change their behaviors, it is necessary to demonstrate how the change from the old to the new will make life easier, even if it requires some difficulty in the near term.

When I say “make life easier” I mean at the personal level – not the organizational.  If the organization is made more profitable, that creates some amount of ease, but one that doesn’t necessarily transfer all the way down to the individual.  In fact, most initiatives have the opposite result – making the long-term workload for the individual more difficult.  Sustaining the improvement also becomes easier because, once people are able to accomplish the desired outcomes with less strain, they will always want to keep doing things in the easiest way they know how.

It must be noted that, if the people within an organization have been subjected to years of strain and strive, however, they will not easily adopt anything new.  The lack of trust is simply too pervasive.  In these cases, incentives in the form of tangible or intangible rewards are often doled out in order to reward those who adopt the new behaviors with the greatest zeal.  Unfortunately, in these circumstance, no amount of management pressure, bribery or cajoling will ever be successful in the long term because the energy required on the part of management to enact such things will eventually run out, too.

People will develop new habits based on a perceived personal benefit, and even then, old habits die hard.  Overcoming this inertia requires a bit of guidance.  When it comes to change, nothing is as important as an engaged, supportive and authoritative leadership.

In the age of engagement, you can’t thwart ambition

ambition_by_tja88

ambition by tja88

There are more articles, books and posting out there on engagement, creating engagement, the benefits of creating engagement, and so on than I can count.  So, of course, I’m going to write a post about engagement (Once in a while, I do like to suppress my contrarian urges and go along with the crowd).  Instead of yet another voice telling you how to generate engagement, however, here’s a tale of how to make sure it gets utterly destroyed:

A friend recently told me that, at the employer she has been with for years, and after having recently completed a graduate degree that the company funded, during her Annual Review (a practice that, all by itself, tends to smother engagement anyway.  Click here for good reading on the subject) she was penalized….yes, actually penalized, for seeking other opportunities within the company.  “Clearly, you’re not happy here,” she was told.  “Everyone else is doing good work because they are committed to their position.”  and, with that, she received a less-than-stellar review that impacted her income, of course.  During the course of the year other people had transitioned to new roles both into and out of that department, leaving her flabbergasted at the comments in the appraisal.

My poor friend’s predicament left me wondering how, in an era where engagement is so widely and openly discussed, any employer can seek to crush its people’s ambitions?  Clearly, this person was not disloyal – after receiving advanced education she was looking to return that value to the company by applying it internally (something she had limited opportunities to do in her current role).  Nonetheless, she was chastised and punished for trying to bring greater value to the company and create her own sense of engagement by taking on a more challenging position (because, obviously, no one was much interested in creating that sort of engagement for her).

I heard this story right on the heels of a great Fast Company article describing how many employees are now forced into faking enthusiasm.  Clearly, as both the article and my friend’s experience demonstrate, the situation with regard to engagement is getting worse instead of better.   Also, if you want people to be dedicated, celebrate their ambitions.  Chris Seper recently placed a very popular article on LinkedIn speaking to the situation directly: “Why I celebrate when my employees leave”

Here’s a tip for those who are still struggling with the concept:  Engagement….or passion…or loyalty…or whatever word you want …. is not about appearances.   Nor is it something that you should rely on people creating for themselves, because such things are not brought about through the perserverance, discipline and dedication of employees.  Perserverance, discipline and dedication are the results of employee engagement, not the inputs.

Beware the surge

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

I have witnessed or been a part of multiple process improvement efforts – whether they are small in nature and affect only a few people, or large, transformational endeavors designed to reshape the culture of an organization, if not its entire business model.  Some of them succeed, some of them fail, all of them go through a period of a quick, immediate up-tick in performance that looks and feels like success.  A while later, however, there is a let-down.

Some organizations commit to the new direction, usually only when there is a large investment into something tangible – like a major software implementation, office redesign or relocation, or acquisition or merger.  When the intended change is not tangible, however, and the desire is simply to make things go better or to reduce cost, the immediate surge feels good but then tends to end sliding backwards until old, ingrained habits settle in.

The pattern is well documented and observable, of course.  The dynamic is very similar to the classic marketing problem of “Crossing the Chasm” that takes an idea from the early adopters to the mainstream.  Sure, there are always people who want ot have something new just for the sake of having something new (watch the lines form around the corner at the next iPhone release), however, most people will wait a while before making a decision to try it out, and even longer before committing to the idea entirely.

There are plenty of discussion on how to bridge the gap, too.  Most will focus on the role of leadership in driving the organization and, more importantly, the people within the organization to adopt the new reality, whatever it may be.  This is done with coaching, hand holding, engagement, and so on, each of which is intended to match people’s habits with the expected behavior.

I suspect, however, that the problem when it comes to facilitating adoption isn’t so much one of driving people to the intended outcome, but in allowing people to change the outcome.  Consider the marketing analogy – if a product fails outright, would it have succeeded if the consumers themselves could have changed it into what they desired, rather than what the producer wanted to produce?  This is, in many ways, the essence of the Lean Startup movement – introduce something minimal and iterate as quickly as possible with measurable data as input.

Perhaps, when it comes to change initiatives, a similar approach should be adopted?  Rather than rolling out major process and culture-changing implementations all at once and driving people to the expected behavior, change can be conducted as a sort of crowd-sourced endeavor?  Leadership at the top is usually concerned with industry trends and overall company performance, and (unfortunately) doesn’t necessarily interact day-to-day with the the rank and file.  This places them in a poor position to determine what’s best for  the rank and file (not to mention what’s best for customers), how they’ll react to change and, therefore, how they will react.

Nonetheless, Leadership does have the authority to decide when change is necessary.  Rather than deciding the course, speed and direction unilaterally, however, I have to wonder if the better approach is to initiate the change and then step out of the way.  Let the crowd determine when course corrections are needed in order to align Leadership’s perceived need for change with people’s need to feel empowered and lasting, sustainable changes just might occur.