Last week brought us two well-written articles in the New York Times; the first, a withering look at Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, by Nicholas Carlson and the second, a rather more positive one on Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, by Jonathan Mahler. 

I found the two stories fascinating, and I thought it would be interesting for this blog to take a quick look at the two CEOs and their rather contrasting management styles. This is Part I of this blogpost. In addition, I think there are some key strategy lessons that emerge from Nicholas Carlson’s well-written article on Marissa Mayer. That is Part II.

Part I

In this first part, I will compare the management styles that emerge from these articles.

Let us take Susan Wojcicki first. Jonathan Mahler’s article cites Susan Wojcicki’s decidedly easygoing style as sans “media-mogul swagger” or any desire to hold-forth on “changing nature of entertainment”. She presents herself as someone who is “in the learning mode and who is yet to get a handle on the medium”.

My inference is that only a truly-secure person would present himself or herself thus. And she is secure – after all she was employee #16 at Google, which owns YouTube, and Google was founded in her garage; also her sister Anne Wojcicki married Google co-founder Sergey Brin).

I found the following worth highlighting from the article, which I thought illuminated Susan Wojcicki’s personality and management style.

  • “ Wojcicki is home for dinner with her family almost every night — her husband, Dennis Troper, is a director at Google — and she generally doesn’t answer weekend emails until 9 p.m. on Sundays. “Productivity and success in this industry are based a lot of the time on insights and prioritization and actually on doing the right thing, not necessarily on 15-hour work days,” she said.
  • She has an understated manner, and she comes across as non-threatening. In a meeting she “does not direct the conversation as much as guides it with questions and suggestions”People “describe her less as a visionary thinker than an open-minded and analytical one”.
  • She is happy not being too sure or holding too firm an opinion about a product. “Whenever we launch a product, there is always something we didn’t expect. Things are always changing. Part of being successful here is being comfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen.”

In contrast to Wojcicki’s non-threatening consultative style, in the Nicholas Carlson story Marissa Mayer emerges as a self-assured alpha. One of the first things she does on joining Yahoo is to “log her computer into Yahoo’s code base, so that she can personally make changes”!

She is so assured of her taste, and preferences that she oversees the logo design herself, changes colours on Yahoo’s email app at the last minute, and decides to push Yahoo into the premium content space hiring Katie Couric, David Pogue, Bobbi Brown, shutting down Shine, which she felt was too middle-brow.

Mayer is not a good prioritizer either – “one executive complained to a friend that Mayer spent as much time deliberating Yahoo’s parking policies as she did strategizing over the sale of its Alibaba stock.” Ouch! And she has a punctuality problem!

I guess I am not being fair — these articles haven’t necessarily been written with the idea of presenting a complete rounded picture. They have a certain slant in mind, and they are happy to write to the agenda. Still, even with a clear understanding of the tilt, I found the two articles and the contrast in the management styles fascinating. Two (female) tech CEOs, and such opposites. 

Part II

The Nicholas Carson profile of Mayer’s failing stewardship of Yahoo would be a terrific case for discussion in management colleges. Yes, it is that good! The article presents a terrific picture of how Marissa Mayer’s attempt to transform Yahoo has run into trouble – through a combination of a poorly-designed strategy framework, middling execution and perhaps a flawed management style.

What I want to do here is examine Yahoo’s strategy under Marissa Mayer through the lens of a strategy framework that I use – Roger Martin’s strategy cascade. This simple framework defines strategy as a set of answers to 5 integrated questions, which are

  1. What is our winning aspiration?
  2. Where do we play?
  3. How do we win?
  4. What capabilitiesdo we need?
  5. What management systemsare required?

The trick, as Dr Martin puts it, is to have five answers that are consistent with one another and actually reinforce one another.

So let us the strategy developed by Marissa Mayer through the lens of Roger Martin’s framework –

The question Mayer’s approach My comment
What is our winning aspiration? Her goal was to have Yahoo become a fast-growing top-tier tech that attracts top talent, and play at the level of the big 4, viz., Google, FB, Amazon & Apple. Go back to what Yahoo once was. In other words, do what Steve Jobs did at Apple. Apple’s turnaround is remarkable only because it is so rare. It is probably impossible to repeat. From that point of view alone perhaps Mayer’s plan was not realistic. Should she have set her sights lower?
Where will we play? Focus on 12 or so “Daily Habits” include news-reading, checking weather, reading email, photo-sharing etc., that are common user activities on mobile devices, and become the go-to product for that, as opposed to the earlier 100+ product portfolio they had. In some senses this was a throwback to Yahoo’s original mission where they became the interpreters to the world wide web, helping people do everything on one site. Well thought-through, but not well-executed. If this was the arena, then why did she push Yahoo into search where it has historically been weak, and why did she go out and invest in premium content such as Pogue, Couric etc?
How will we win? Compelling mobile experiences via best-in-class mobile app for each. More focus on creating an irrestistible product (harder to do) as opposed to focusing on improving monetizing of ads (easy wins). Not easy to do.
What capabilities do we need? Lots & lots of Mobile Engineers; speed in product development. Only 60 large mobile engineering team vs FB which had 1,000. Yahoo had previously underinvested in mobile. As a result Yahoo was unable to execute well.
What management systems should we put in place? Not clear what Mayer put in place. Carlson in his article talks about the Quarterly Performance Reviews + calibration meetings ranking employees on teams from 1 to 5. Since only few 4s or 5s could be allocated, talented people did not want to work together.  


If we look at Yahoo in mid-2012, around the time Mayer joined, we see a $4b company that has a massive reach of 700mn UVs every month, an outsized tech team for a media co, a 1,000-large ad sales team with proven strength in selling display ad solutions. It also had a 20% stake in Alibaba, and a sizeable cash buffer. It was also under Ross Levinsohn’s (interim CEO before Mayer) watch, being nudged into becoming a media co (as opposed to a tech co).

Clearly Mayer’s arrival and the decision to become a product-focused co, meant that it suddenly needed a newer set of capabilities – such as top quality mobile engineers etc – which were not easy to come by. Each of the answers to the five questions needs to be consistent with the other. Clearly in Yahoo’s case it is not. It is this disconnect that hobbles Yahoo still, and why its revenues have been declining every quarter since Mayer joined. In other words, Yahoo’s strategy is a failure.

There is a wonderful line in Carlson’s article that says “Yahoo grew into a colossus by solving a problem that no longer exists”. For Yahoo to re-emerge as a colossus, it has to solve entirely new problems. And that’s the challenge for Mayer and all at Yahoo. Perhaps there isn’t a new problem to solve, and Yahoo could mature into an online media co that generates $5b rev and $1b profits, way more than the NYT does.