Yahoo, Marisa Mayer and the risky cult of the CEO

It is official. After months of speculation, it was announced Monday that Verizon will acquire Yahoo’s internet businesses for $4.83 billion.

While the last days of Yahoo have been predicted for some time, it is the somewhat unexpected fall from grace of CEO Marisa Mayer that has dominated the headlines.

mayer1.png

When Mayer took the helm in 2012, the media salivated at the prospect. The Wisconsin native represented the ultimate Silicon Valley success story, including a meteoric rise at Google and culminating in the top spot at Yahoo – a company that was viewed fondly by most, even if its glory days were clearly well behind it.

Mayer was heralded as a wunderkind, a “geek goddess” according to one breathless reporter and a force that could steady the ship after a demoralizing period which saw four CEOs between 2011 and 2012 alone. Hopeful employees even placed posters of Mayer modeled on President Obama’s famous “Hope”’ image throughout the company’s offices.

But if there was ever a case of media hype clouding rational thought, this was it.

mayer2.jpg

Yahoo had been struggling for years before Mayer arrived, and the idea of an Apple-like renaissance was always a long shot. A management overhaul, product redesigns and an ambitious acquisition of Tumblr temporarily re-energized the company and the stock price. But the honeymoon was short-lived. Revenue just wasn’t growing.

Almost as quickly as the media heralded her arrival, the tide turned against Mayer. High profile “hit pieces” began to emerge – and her alleged high-handed management style, poor business and hiring decisions, and an unseemly need for self-promotion were all in the spotlight.

Trapped in an unforgiving media landscape that demands heroes and villains, Mayer was cast as both. And frankly, she did little to help herself.

Most notably, in the midst of massive layoffs, Mayer threw a Great Gatsby-inspired holiday party which cost, according to one shareholder, $7 million. And a tone-deaf picture of her sitting on a throne-like white chair throughout the event went viral. In a world where Silicon Valley is considered the nexus of US income inequality, Mayer started looking like a modern day Marie Antoinette.  

mayer3.png

The communications lessons here are plentiful. The media loves a charismatic CEO, and the idea of an anointed savior who somehow possesses a mystical ability to save billion-dollar companies in crisis has enormous appeal. It worked for Apple and more recently for Microsoft. Why not Yahoo?

But these success stories are the exception, not the rule, and companies should be wary of pinning their success or failure on one individual. Innovation, customer care and tangible growth should always take precedence – and should be at the forefront of a storytelling strategy. The CEO’s profile should complement the business story, not the other way round.

On balance, Mayer is clearly a talented leader, she has had huge success to date and she took big risks to turn Yahoo around. When that didn’t pay off, the decision – conscious or otherwise – to link her fate so closely to Yahoo’s has massively dented her credibility.