Marissa Mayer knows how to throw a party. The controversial CEO of Yahoo! once threw a flannel-themed Christmas party at her Palo Alto home (she also has a penthouse apartment in the Four Seasons) that featured not only shipped-in snow but also a backyard ice-skating rink almost large enough for NHL games. At some point during the party, as recorded in Nicholas Carlson’s book Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!, a pajama-clad Mayer climbed aboard a mini Zamboni she had rented for the occasion, and set out to smooth out the ice that had become cut up by her ice-skating guests. “It was a comical, cheerful scene, and another host might have laughed and waved at her guests as she rode the funny-looking Zamboni in her pj’s,” Carlson writes. “Not Mayer. She was very serious. Sitting on top of the big machine, she concentrated on the ice beneath her. She wanted to smooth over every inch. She was going to get the job done herself and be excellent about it.”
As Carlson describes in his book, the Christmas scene reflects the personality of Mayer: hands-on, serious and driven to excellence — which in the minds of many Yahoo employees and former employees translates, writes Carlson, into “micromanaging, bottlenecking and dictatorial.”
In many ways, the cover of this book is misleading. Despite the photograph of Mayer and her name in bigger type than the rest of the title, this is, surprisingly, more a book about Yahoo than about Mayer. After a brief prologue, readers don’t run into Mayer again until more than 130 pages later, when, in part II of his book he describes Mayer’s early life and career at Google. Part III of the book returns to the behind-the-scenes battles between activist shareholders and Yahoo executives that dominate much of the early part of the book. Marissa Mayer finally enters the Yahoo! building for the first time nearly 250 pages in, giving Carlson less than 100 pages to cover Mayer’s two years (so far) at the helm of Yahoo!
In those 100 pages, Carlson narrates in engaging detail the ups and downs of Mayer’s first two years at Yahoo! For example, Mayer sent shock waves in the progressive hi-tech industry when she abolished Yahoo’s work-at-home policy. At the same time, Mayer replaced employees’ Blackberries with more up-to-date smart phones, and, in a bid to introduce transparency, started staff meetings in which she and her executives answered questions from employees. Mayer bet heavily on mobile apps and on digital magazines, hiring Katie Couric and others to create momentum that never materialized. On a more positive note, she acquired Tumblr for $1.1 billion, a record for a social media company at the time and an acquisition that in some ways has helped keep Yahoo! relevant.
A number of Mayer’s problems seem self-inflicted, including, according to Carlson, her inability to hire effective executives and her unfeeling interactions with her subordinates. The dictatorial, micromanaging style, as many employees see it, can demoralize a workforce whose morale, according to Carlson, is already badly hit by another Mayer initiative, the quarterly performance reviews (QPRs) that have echoes of Jack Welch’s infamous rank-and-yank employee policies at GE. Inevitably pitting employee against employee, the QPRs discourage collaboration and encourage cut-throat competition: it’s better that your colleague looks bad and gets the bad reviews; otherwise it will be you.
Mayer had an enormous advantage as she began her new position as CEO: a guaranteed two years in which the company’s financial health was assured by Yahoo’s prescient stake in the groundbreaking Chinese company, Alibaba, whose anticipated IPO in the fall of 2014 netted Yahoo a cool $8.3 billion windfall. (Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba, now worth $39.5 billion, was spun off into a separate company in January 2015, after the book was published.)
The question remains whether Mayer can make Yahoo! into the dominant Internet player it once was. Marissa Mayer, Carlson writes, points to the five years that Steve Jobs took to revitalize Apple, with the creation of the iPod. Is there an iPod equivalent in Yahoo’s future? For Carlson, the verdict is still out. The outcome depends in large part on the patience of the activist shareholders who pushed out several CEOs prior to Mayer.