Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer gets the “unauthorized biography” treatment

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has been the subject of numerous profiles during her career, but while she clearly enjoys the attention, she doesn’t give a lot of interviews.  That didn’t stop Nicholas Carlson, who’s produced a fascinating “unauthorized biography” for Business Insider that goes quite a bit deeper than two other recent profiles in BusinessWeek and Vogue – both interesting in their own right – that were written with Mayer’s cooperation.

Many aspects of Mayer’s career – as a former Wisconsin girl who came to Stanford and became one of Google’s most influential executives – are already well-known.  But Carlson turned up new details about her tenure at Google and about how she got the job at Yahoo.  Among his findings:

Yahoo executive Ross Levinsohn, who was interim CEO after Scott Thompson left the job in a resume scandal last year, thought he had a lock on the permanent appointment until his final meeting with Yahoo’s board, just days before Mayer’s hiring was decided.  But Yahoo investor Dan Loeb and his allies on the board were convinced they needed a CEO who would be focused on technology products, rejecting Levinsohn’s plan for drastically remaking Yahoo into a company focused on media content.

Mayer overcame “painful shyness” as a high-achieving student by taking on the role of leader and, later, teacher. According to Carlson:

“Mayer’s childhood piano teacher, Joanne Beckman, remembers Mayer being very different from other children in that she was someone who “watched people” in order to “figure out why they were doing what they were doing …
“A lot of kids that age are very interested in themselves,” Beckman says, “She was looking at other people.”

But after considering becoming a teacher in college, Carlson says, Mayer accepted a job at Google after almost deleting an email from the company by mistake:

“Late on a Friday in mid-April of her last year at Stanford, Mayer sat at her computer, eating pasta and reading emails.
“She already had 12 job offers to choose from, and wasn’t looking for any more hard choices.
“So when yet another pitch from a recruiter popped up in her inbox, she tapped on her keyboard’s delete key to get rid of it.
“Only, she missed.
“Instead of hitting delete, Mayer hit the space bar and opened the email.
“That email’s subject line: “Work at Google?”

Over the years, Mayer rose through the ranks at Google and attracted wide attention both as a rare female tech executive and one of the company’s most powerful figures. But her star seemed to fade at Google after Larry Page became CEO again in 2011.  While Mayer had focused like a laser on technology and products, Carlson writes, she may have hurt herself by showing less interest in the advertising side of the business, which is how Google makes its money.

What’s worse, Carlson concludes, is that Mayer alienated other top Google executives with a rigid, “I know best” leadership style – holding up the launch of new products until she approved them, and even refusing to talk with peers unless they scheduled meetings during her regular “office hours.”

At Yahoo, Mayer has brought that same imperious style to bear as she’s shaken up the company’s top ranks and overseen an extensive overhaul of its online products.  But despite many bruised feelings, Carlson reports that insiders at the struggling company say Yahoo has become a more “vibrant” place under her leadership. He quotes one person who had clashed with Mayer as saying:

“Just because I don’t like what she’s done to me and I don’t like what she’s done to many other people, doesn’t mean I’m going to shy away from giving her credit.  She brought life back to Yahoo.  There’s no question about it. … If she hadn’t come in, all the smart people would have left.”

 (Photo of Marissa Mayer courtesy of Yahoo)


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