March 6, 2013
Marissa Mayer Made A Big Play For Good Reason

At the risk of adding to my reputation as yesterday’s man, I’m fully supporting Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s ban on working from home. Frankly, there aren’t many of us out there applauding this controversial big play.

Several journalists, tech pundits and business leaders have called her gambit regressive, old school thinking, anti-family and a giant step backward. However, none of the naysayers seem to realize that she is faced with a turnaround situation. Ms. Mayer was hired away from Google to reverse four years of eroding revenue. Radical change is required. To fulfill any turnaround mandate, a leader has no choice but to initiate substantial cultural and strategic change with a firm hand, not a weak wrist.

Ms. Mayer is no stranger to the utopic corporate culture she is trying to create. She grew up in the house of Google where employees were encouraged to come to work and work together. During her 13-year tenure, Google invested in making their brick and mortar facilities conducive to onsite collaboration. The strategy worked like a charm. So why wouldn’t she want to instill this model at Yahoo?

If the hordes of telecommuters were adding massive value to the organization, Ms. Mayer would not risk their exit because of this alteration to their working conditions. I think she sized up the work force and concluded that her most valuable employees were the ones prepared to come into the operation every day. These are the people who will represent Yahoo’s future.

Working from the office isn’t for everyone, and sure, Yahoo will lose some top talent in the coming months. But let’s be honest; there are a heck of a lot of folks out there who buy into the logic that working under one roof, side-by-side and face-to-face with colleagues bolsters communication and collaboration. Ideas and insights come from personal interaction, whether those touch points are in formal meetings or casual chats in Yahoo’s hallways and cafeterias. “One Yahoo” means physically being together and moving in one direction like a flock of geese.

Reversing several years of declining revenue is never easy, and turnaround strategies based on doing more of the same—but trying to do it much better—seldom work. Such plans are risk-averse; they are not transformational, not strategic, and not game-changing.

Success depends on one or two big (and courageous) plays. Ms. Mayer’s first big play is cultural. To recapture the hearts and minds of current and future customers, her next play will have to be strategic within product and service.

In 24 to 36 months, Yahoo will be a different demographic and psychographic animal. The competitive advantage lies in how Yahoo’s employees work together to fulfill Marissa Mayer’s strategic vision. In her mind, everyone under one roof improves the odds of success. All she has to do now is choose the right roommates.

John Bell
John Bell is a retired consumer packaged goods CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world's most respected blue-chip organizations. A prolific writer, John's musings on strategy, leadership, and branding have appeared in various marketing journals and publications such as Fortune and Forbes. He has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. John can be reached at

Other Articles by John Bell:

The Two Faces Of Charismatic Leaders

CEO Presence Isn’t Style. It’s Substance

Panhandler Lessons For CEOs

5 Ways HR Is Just Like Marketing

Why Great CEOs Aren't Always Great Leaders

These Giants Should Just Admit Their Strategy Is Clout

Why Great Brands Lose Their Way

Why CEOs Should Do Less, Better

CEOs Should Stop Using The “C” Word

Here's Why Strategy Is So Misunderstood

  • Eric Jones

    You are right on track John. She was not hired to come in and keep the status quo like her predecessors. Look at a 12 month chart of YHOO. There is no questions that she is making an impact. She is young and has guts. Sometimes you have to make change for the sake of change simply because you cannot keep doing it the same way. Unfortunately there may be some pain for those at Yahoo but long-term she seems to absolutely be on the track. Great article and insight John.

    • John R. Bell

      Thanks for the kind words, Eric. Most people have never experienced the agony of a turnaround. Whether the effort brought success or failure, you are never the same afterward. As you correctly state, failure is guaranteed if the leader doesn’t disrupt the status quo.

  • Kevin Crenshaw

    Yes, but there are always three issues:
    1) WHAT you do (management),
    2) WHY you do it (leadership),
    3) HOW you do it (execution).

    Ignore #3 and you lose, even if you get #1 and #2 right.

    “Telecommuting is not allowed because we need excellent collaboration” sounds regressive, incomplete, and heavy-handed. (Unanswered issues: For every single job and supplier for the company? Forever? Even suppliers and advisors need to be on-site forevermore? Will Yahoo will never have more than one office, with everyone co-located in one space 24/7?)

    That message also ignores the elephant sitting on Yahoo’s table.

    A much better #3: “We are suspending telecommuting because a) it is generally out of control, and more importantly b) we need everyone face-to-face as we engineer the most amazing turnaround in history. We’ll interact intensively for the next 18 months or so; telecommuting tools just aren’t there yet. But as tools evolve (or we create them) this policy will be reviewed–the world is connected an mobile, and Yahoo is going to be at the forefront of that future.”

    That message would create a positive cultural and strategic vision, break down silos by focusing people on a common rallying cry, and inspire hope of innovation and flexibility in the future. The current message misses those opportunities.

    Execution matters. After all, the CEO is the Chief *Executive* Officer.

  • John R. Bell

    Thanks for weighing in, Kevin. I’ve always believed that “Doing Right Things” is leadership and “Doing Things Right” is management. The debate will surely continue as to whether this particular leadership call was right for Yahoo!

  • JLM

    Underlying this issue is a bedrock, fundamental value — do folks like to work at home better than coming to the office?

    If so, why?

    Forget the individual special situation — someone has small children, sick — and focus on the big picture.

    Is the company culture and work environment something that employees enjoy and seek to participate in?

    If not, why not?

    You can force everyone to come to the office — which is frankly the norm and why not? — but can you really get them to want to come?

    That is the “discovery” that Yahoo must manage effectively. Make them want to come to the office.

    It does no good to ask someone — why did you leave?

    If is insightful to ask someone — what was in your head when you first started looking?


  • Ron Jackson

    Fly in the ointment?? Does she have a nursery in the CEO suite? If so, that’s not walking the walk.

  • Dave Ranson

    John –

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I agree that in a turn around, “a leader has no choice but to initiate substantial cultural and strategic change with a firm hand, not a weak wrist.” I think Marissa Mayer’s decision to go for “culture” first is brilliant. She needs the whole team to be on the same page – doing the right things at the right times… and that’s not easy, even with everyone in the same building. However, it’s even more difficult to reframe a culture with a dispersed “virtual” work force. Culture change is one of the most difficult challenges a leadership team faces.

    In the short term, I think Yahoo’s biggest challenge is in making Yahoo a place that people WANT to come to work because of the energy and interactions that happen “by chance” when people are close by. During her time at Google, they invested heavily in making their facilities “collaboration enablers”… and they were very successful. Why wouldn’t Yahoo benefit from a similar strategy?

    I know that it’s not fashionable, but I’m rooting for Marissa Mayer and her leadership team. They don’t have much visible support… but I think the long term results will speak for themselves.

    Looking forward to more blog posts from you, John,

    – Dave Ranson