Start Leading, Stop Executing

Marrisa Mayer’s recent edict that all Yahoo’s report to the office unleashed a fast and furious debate on the web. Clearly the story struck a chord on a number of levels to get everyone to jump in so quickly.┬áIt’s clear that the argument can be made for both sides, as plenty of people have done.

By all accounts Yahoo, the company, is desperately trying to re-engineer itself to remain relevant and viable in the tech space. Such re-engineering takes sometimes drastic changes in order to cut through the inertia of corporate culture. It’s well understood that the biggest risk to companies are smaller disruptive competitors who can be different than way things have been done at the incumbent. I have experienced one such period myself when I worked at Hewlett-Packard during the merger of HP and Compaq. I started there during the final years of Lew Platt, and I left just prior to Carly Fiorina’s firing.

But the story has all the markings of a well intentioned, poorly conceived, and equally poorly executed management decision. Many senior managers hang on to an old mental model of corporate hierarchy where they know better, they decide among themselves, and everyone below them in the org chart dutifully follows along. Along the way they assume they know exactly what is best for everyone, and they assume they know what everyone will do. They make decisions, they execute them.

But the problem is that in this social media age, the individual has become empowered to think, to exchange information. It’s no mistake that we are the generation of knowledge workers, rather than just a labor force. There is a reason that the Arab Spring and other popular uprisings happened in this time, when it is easier than ever to have an opinion and to communicate. It is a fatal mistake to assume that employees will do exactly what they are expected to do, or will follow along with the ideal models of human resources management, or that every employee will neatly fit into the different boxes drawn on the whiteboard.

Katrina did a nice blog post on how to think about this from an employee’s perspective – it is a personal choice. Corporations have taught us that we live in a time of employment at will – the company’s and the employee’s. However, the best performers, the most proactive employees also have the best opportunities to act on these choices, and make decisions accordingly. Forcing the hand of employees like this, usually forces the opposite change of the intended outcome of Yahoo’s decision.

Going back to the Yahoo decision, I see three short comings of leadership, and that would make me concerned about the outlook of this turn-around if I were an investor into the company:

A failure of people leadership

By all accounts, Yahoo has a lot of employees who have become poor performers during the prior years of decline. They’ve become disengaged, pay lip service to the day job and do something else (by accounts in some cases even starting their own company while on the clock). Some of them work in remote work environments, and some of them in the office. Of course working remotely makes it easier to hide such attitudes, and there is a correlation, but it’s only an overlap, not a full match.

What Yahoo needs to do is to manage poor performance employees, not eliminate remote workers. They need employees that believe in the company, that are excited to come to work in the morning, and go the extra mile. People believe in a company if they see and understand a vision, and if they trust the company’s leadership. Decisions like this one, though don’t speak of vision, they don’t speak of senior executives trusting employees. Instead it speaks of heavy-handed, uncaring decision making. Most likely it will not solve the problem, but will lead people to look elsewhere, only making the problem bigger.

Eliminating poor performance and trusting employees to do their job regardless of where their desk is, or if you have daily face time with them, is one of the bigger challenges of people management. It takes leadership and personal maturity to do it. Thus this decision is a failure of people leadership.

A failure of brand perception management

Yahoo is (or was) a big name in tech history. Companies in tech live by being leaders, forward thinking, ground breaking, non-traditional, new frontier places. More than ever can we actually work in non-office environments and communicate with everyone instantly both in writing, via audio connections, or visually via web cam.

Requiring everyone to report to the office is very much a pattern of the past, is saying all these modern technologies don’t mean anything. As a company who created, and still runs one of the email services that enables many small companies and entrepreneurs to communicate, Yahoo is in a unique position to be a provider of tools and infrastructure of a remote and distributed modern-day workforce. We need more and better tools to keep working in the modern workplace. Yahoo could be a leader on this front. But the best leaders eat their own dog food, they lead by example – or as managers like to say ‘walk the talk’.

Yahoo started out as a portal and a search engine. Both are mature products in the online age, some even say we’ve passed the prime years of the search engine, and clearly portals have been replaced by social networks like Facebook. So if Yahoo wants to remain a powerhouse in the tech world but serving the broad population, it needs new leading edge products. Communication and productivity tools for an ever growing remote workforce would be a logical place for Yahoo to place itself based on their history.

But anything a company does also impact it’s brand perception. And this latest move, does not speak of company that wants to be leading edge, on the frontier. And with this having become a major news story online, it leaves a big mark on brand perception. Thus, not only did this decision negatively impact the trust of employees in the senior management, but it also negatively impacted the broader perception of Yahoo as a brand and with that the possibility of turning the ship around. It was a failure in perception management.

A management failure

Sometimes you think you make the right decision, you have vetted the plan, you have gotten the data that re-affirmed you are doing the right thing, you have run it by your trusted advisors and they all nodded. But as soon as you push the button you realize you got it wrong. People misunderstood your intention, you overlooked a crucial fact, you couldn’t reach that one advisor that would have made you look at this another way.

Now you have a choice – you can dig in, take cover, and power through. You check your savings account balance and consider whether you can afford the colateral damage. Or you can take can show your vulnerability, admit that maybe you didn’t think about a different way of looking at this, start a conversation, look at alternatives, and if justified make adjustments.

The first choice is a gut reaction, the easy thing to do. Being vulnerable takes guts, takes self-confidence. It should be what leaders have lots of. Unfortunately few show it.

When the story broke, Yahoo dug in, said they didn’t comment on internal matters and stayed silent. Of course we don’t know if there was more conversation internally, but it’s not likely. There would have been an opportunity to engage with the employees and with the opinion makers online to talk about the challenges and opportunities of large remote workforces. There would have been an opportunity to show that they value their employee’s opinions and are willing to listen and make changes.

PR stories like this, if handled correctly, can be huge opportunities for brands to get remembered and noticed again, for a lot less than a major brand awareness campaign would cost. But it takes vision and on-point management to execute these opportunities. They can become great recruiting tools for people that would like to work at a company like that, or they can poison your recruiting efforts making to so much harder to turn the company around.

Not doing so, is a management failure. It fails to inspire employees to do their best, and make the company they work for a premier player in the tech world again.

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