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The case of Marissa Mayer and Yahoo: good leaders don’t depend on luck


Consider the case of Yahoo and what it can teach us about the importance of timing for every leader.


The company and its chief, Marissa Mayer, have been attracting a sizeable amount of media attention and comment in recent days. This might come as a surprise to casual users of the internet, given that Yahoo is a brand you may already have mentally filed in the same dusty box as MySpace and AltaVista.


However, it is, at least at the time of writing, still a company with a considerable workforce and surprising market clout. But how long this remains is anybody’s guess.


At Yahoo, much of the discussion has looked at perceived failures of leadership on the part of Ms Mayer. Brought over from Google in 2012 to a good deal of excitable noise, her appointment was intended to reinvigorate Yahoo’s stuttering performance through a new and fresh approach.


Criticisms of how this effort has panned out have included suggestions that Ms Mayer has failed to articulate a definitive new strategy, preferring to tweak and tinker with an already failing approach through minor product changes and workforce policies.


A lack of market understanding has also been pointed to, with some attributing this – somewhat unconvincingly – to her relative youth and comparative lack of leadership know-how. She has also been accused of a touch of overconfidence – she has been loudly trumpeted for her impressive work ethic and rapid career rise, which might have come at the expense of humility and collaborative decision-making.


Another major aspect of this has been the extent to which Ms Mayer has suffered through possible poor timing. At her appointment, for example, Yahoo already had the appearance of a company that had been left behind by major rivals, with its growth at a comparative standstill and its offering looking increasingly dated and irrelevant. Such timing cursed her with a bad hand from the start.


She also spent heavily on the acquisition of Tumblr, a move that some, at the time, immediately suggested was behind the curve as far as internet users’ interests went. In a notoriously fast-moving industry, heavy spending to acquire relevance can look more like an ageing parent listening to the latest music in a futile attempt to appear cool.


Famously, Ms Mayer also removed her employees’ ability to work remotely and instigated a system of employee appraisals that ranked individuals on a bell curve of performance. Both of these decisions could be viewed as being similarly behind the times. In a corporate landscape where an increasing numbers of major companies are ditching familiar performance reviews and embracing greater flexibility for their staff, Yahoo looked charmingly traditional. For a technology company, being so out of step with current trends is almost unforgivable.


Good timing is a crucial component of leadership success. This is true whether you are talking about the decision to take up a particular leadership role, choosing the appropriate time to convey a new organisational vision or allowing teams the time and space to work through problems on their own. As a leader, you can’t just make good decisions – you need to make the right decision, at the right time, and you need to do this regularly.


It is true that this good timing can often possess a lot of the hallmarks of simple good luck. Often the “right” decision can only appear so in retrospect, and this might then become indistinguishable from good fortune. The difference is that a good decision made at the right time will have been undertaken with a reliance on leadership experience and expertise, backed up by intuition and understanding, and then taken with decisive but informed self-confidence.


Some matters of timing are beyond a leader’s control and this is true also where fortunate circumstances mask less effective leadership. However, proper preparation and good decisions should mean that the matters they can control only have the coincidental appearance of being lucky because of the real success they bring.


Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group


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