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.

Follow up: Why Lunch & Learn is not for everyone

lonely_lady_loves_lunch_by_emohoc
lonely_lady_loves_lunch_by_emohoc

lonely lady loves lunch by emohoc

Last time out, my post on why I dislike the practice of Lunch & Learns drew quite a few visitors to the site, and a small handful of comments on reddit.

One comment, in particular, stuck out in my mind.  Reddit user: “CivilDiscussions” wrote:

You sound like quite the slacker. In the real world, we have lunch meetings all the time. Lunch isn’t guaranteed to be “your time”

Now THAT is a fascinating take – that wanting to have a break with which to recharge, or to avoid yet another mindless, unproductive meeting, is associated with slacking.  The only thing this makes me believe is that people with this mindset have not yet adopted the principles of productivity or efficiency.  Instead, they value activity over accomplishment and, therefore, believe attendance at lunchtime working sessions is useful, which is just plain silly.

After reading the comments on reddit, however, i recalled Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, and her Ted talk on The Power of Introverts.  The assumption that people are “slackers” simply for their preference to be alone for awhile, especially mid-day after 4-5 hours of listening to other people’s incessant yammering, chatter, shifting, shuffling and noise, is certainly ignorant.  For those like me who crave that 30 or 60 minutes of isolation to block out the world and spend a little time doing something that either interests us intently, and/or relaxes us significantly – being chastised for doing what helps us to work seems like something that would cause a loss productivity.

Given that such a significant portion of the population is, in fact, introverted – that only makes the practice of Lunch & Learns that much more difficult to understand.  Consider what we know:

  • Trying to divide a person’s attention is counter-productive.  Eating and working at the same time guarantees a loss of efficiency in both activities and, since time is limited, makes both less effective, too.
  • The majority of people out there don’t like their jobs.  Throwing more information and activity at them in the same amount of time & space is mind numbing.  This either breeds resentment, fatigue resulting in a loss of creativity, or both.
  • A very large percentage of people function poorly when they don’t have a chance to “switch off” and re-charge.  Once they can do that, however, they are remarkably productive and creative.

Lunch & learn sessions fill what seems like non-productive time with something that feels more useful.  What gets missed, however, is the longer-term affects of allowing people to relax, unwind or to even have some time to think about the issues of the day without interruption.  Eliminating this time in favor of the vain belief that if people are doing something that feels like work, they must be doing something productive, is simply ignorant and condescending.

 

I don’t recommend lunch & learns

Lunch_Time_by_X_Night
Lunch_Time_by_X_Night

Lunch Time by X Night

I’ll probably incur the wrath of quite a few consultants and HR organizers out there, but I have to state my case.  I simply hate the practice of “Lunch and Learn” sessions.

My objection is simple:  Lunch time is my time.  When it is lunch time, I like to read, surf the web, play games on my smart phone, take a walk, run an errand, or shoot the bull with my friends.  I even like to eat while doing these things, too.

What I absolutely don’t want to do during lunch is talk about work.  Since I don’t even like to talk about work on what is my time then I definitely don’t want to sit in yet another meeting just for work’s sake during my time.  If the subject is so important, then we can certainly find time during the work day to gather around and discuss it.  Otherwise, it’s just another example of how horribly disorganized things are, not to mention condescending.

No one was able to manage and organize the workday such that these informative, developmental sessions could be held on company time.  That, in itself, is a problem.  Then, to conduct training sessions that, while not mandatory on paper, carry a significant stigma for not attending and require the attendees to bring their own food, even though you’re taking away their personal time – well, that’s just plain rude.

I think we’d all be a lot better off if the practice of lunch and learn’s was done away with, and replaced by the practice of Lunch, then Learn.  Give me my 30 minutes to myself where I can recharge and reflect on the morning’s activities, and I’ll be much more ready, focused and insightful when you want to discuss the topic at hand afterwards.

I’m confident that I’m not alone on this one.

Toy Dogs and the trouble with short-term thinking

Last night was one of those unfortunate, frustrating nights in our house.  At 3:10AM, the dog decided he needed to go out into the yard, which caused him to prance loudly around our bedroom until we woke up to let him out.  Although he woke up both my wife & I, I was awake enough to get out of bed first (which rarely happens), so I let the dogs into the yard, brought them in, and went back to bed.

About 15 minutes later, before either of us could fully doze back to sleep, the 3-year-old started to cry in his bed.  It was just a bad dream, and he went back to sleep quickly, but when I came into his room I moved his toy dog over on his bed to make room for myself.  The button on the dog’s paw that causes it to sing and talk was now easily triggered every time my son rolled over onto it, which we discovered about 5 minutes after I went back to bed.

My wife, aggravated with the singing, got out of bed and went down the hall into my son’s room, and simply moved the dog over, expecting it to finish its song and then go silent.  Too tired to take a look inside the dog and switch off the battery back, she stumbled back to bed hoping the problem would go away.  Of course, by now, the 3-year-old was awake, and playing with the dog – hitting the buttons over and over to listen to the dog sing and talk.  Then, it became my turn to go and try to calm him down, which was impossible, and by 5:15 he was ready to run and jump, so we got up and went downstairs to watch some cartoons while I tried not to bang my head against a wall until I fell into unconsciousness.

Most of us have been in situations like this, or at least similar to it.  Tired, frustrated, stressed out – we seek a quick solution to an immediate problem, ignoring the potential long-term consequences.  For me, I simply moved the dog over rather than putting it someplace where it couldn’t be triggered accidentally.  My wife compounded the problem by just moving the dog and not taking a moment to find the off button.  As a result of taking care of an immediate problem, we ended up with a much longer-term one:  the toy dog kept on singing and the 3-year-old kept on playing, leaving us both tired, frustrated and grumpy as hell for the rest of the day – which will culminate with trying to get the kids to bed (and this time with the dog switched off, which he won’t understand, which means he won’t sleep well….).

Taking a few extra minutes to solve a problem for good seems like an onerous burden when you’re in the middle of the firefight.  That exact same behavior, however, is what leads to the next firefight in the first place.  Although we instantaneously reward ourselves (even with just a few more minutes sleep) for taking care of an immediate problem, we need to remember that solving the bigger problem usually means thinking about the longer term, and that alone will usually guide us to much more long-lasting solutions that allow us to avoid the next problem altogether.

Don’t be a tool

tool of the trade
tool of the trade

tool of the trade by steamby51

If you want to understand slang, there’s no better source than The Urban dictionary.  While far from the classiest site on the internet, let’s face it – there are a lot of references out there that most of us thirtysomethings and beyond just don’t get anymore.

Which isn’t to say we haven’t learned a thing or two we can teach the younger crowed.  According to the Urban Dictionary, a tool is

“One who lacks the mental capacity to know he is being used. A fool. A cretin. Characterized by low intelligence and/or self-steem.”

A lot of the information out there on various blogs and career advice sites advises college graduates to become exactly this – tools.  Although well intended, the advice that is spewed out usually tells people how they can get a foot in the door, appease their boss, be praised by co-workers and, in general, give up on their own thoughts for quite some time while doing all that is necessary to fit in and be just who the boss and the company’s culture want them to be.

Or, in other words, to become complete and utter tools.  If you don’t think these folks who step up and do just what the boss desires in order to get promoted, grab the best assignments, and maneuver their way through the corporate minefield are tools – just ask their co-workers.  You know, those folks who are much more interested in doing a job or – heaven forbid – living a life than their handy counterparts.  There’s no doubt that the do-gooders are considered to be tools by that crowd.

My advice to those young, aspiring people who are entering the world with just about as much freedom as they will ever have in their entire lives is simple – Take advantage of it.

And don’t be a tool.

There will be plenty of time to sit in a cubicle, navigate corporate politics, curry the favor of blowhards and nincompoops, and monitor your 401K.  For a short time, however, you will have the ability to experiment with life….and your career.  Why work for someone else?  Start your own business. It can be just about anything, since the consequences of failure are so low.  Trust me, as you get older – no matter how smart you get about business – going out on your own gets more and more difficult.  Those mortgages and tuition bills are pretty limiting.

And it’s not just about the money.  You might enter into something lucrative that will have you well-positioned by the time you’re 40, or 50, or even 60, leaving you in a position to fund your own start-up or to completely switch careers.  Unfortunately, those kids have a way of wanting your time – and you’ll need to make some difficult decisions on how much of it you’re willing and able to give them once they arrive.

Before all that, however, you have the freedom to test yourself and learn much about the world of business and, even if you don’t really enjoy that, you’ll learn quite a bit about how to budget, plan, and negotiate.  All that will serve you well no matter what you do with yourself.

Looking back, I wish someone had told me this advice back when I had all the options available to me.  There’s much more to be learned by doing for yourself than by doing for someone else.  Especially when working for someone else has such gained such notoriety for turning independent, creative, bright people into nothing more than a tool to be used by someone else.