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Marissa Mayer: Your Job Is to Play Defense for Your Employees

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently talked about how to enable employees to do their best work.
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According to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was his first choice to speak at his company’s annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. The event, Dreamforce ‘13, is a user and developer conference that is expected to draw more than 130,000 attendees total over the course of this week. 

As a keynote event in front of thousands of eager ears, Benioff hosted Tuesday a fireside chat with Mayer, in which she talked about leadership and work-life balance---and responded to an unexpected outburst from angry protestors. 

Leadership Is About Them, Not Me.

First on the agenda: Her development as a leader at Yahoo. Benioff asked Mayer if she had presented Yahoo’s board with a plan when she joined the company in 2012. She said that rather than go straight to the board with all of her ideas, she first asked her employees for ideas, thoughts, and feedback. This employee-first philosophy led to a new Yahoo policy: a Friday afternoon “all-hands meeting to get their ideas.  

"It's really remarkable," Mayer said. "Almost every week we have someone who passes their 15-year milestone at Yahoo. We had two just last Friday. There's a huge number of people who have been with Yahoo forever, and they have amazing loyalty. They also have amazing ideas."

What did Yahoo employees want? Leadership. She said that for the most part, employees said they knew exactly what they needed to do, they just needed a leader to tell them to go do it. She said she soon realized that as an executive, her own job isn’t about doing things, but rather, it’s about playing defense for her employees. 

"Get the obstacles, the process, the bureaucracy, the naysayers out of the way, and help people run as fast as they can," she said.  

A Brief Interruption

But Mayer's feel-good thoughts on leadership were interrupted by an unexpected outburst from the crowd, when a group of about 10 angry protestors yelled something inaudible, but clearly about Walmart.  

"I’m on the board of Walmart, but obviously today is about Yahoo," Mayer said in response, before the protestors were shown out of the room. Activists have shown up at Mayer’s speaking engagements before to protest pay inequity at Walmart. 

Getting You Priorities Straight

Not long after the interruption, the talk was back on track, and toward the end, Benioff asked Mayer how she juggles family life, work life and personal development.  

"For me right now my priorities are family and Yahoo. And if I have time for anything else, it's just a bonus," Mayer said. 

She did say that prioritization was key. Mayer had a good friend in college who had shared her prioritization tip with her. Every day her friend would make a to-do list according to order of importance, but she’d never get to check every thing off.

"She's like, 'I celebrate the fact that I never get to the bottom of it,'" Mayer said of her friend. "'If I did ever get to the bottom of my to do list, I would have spent a bunch of time doing relatively unimportant things.'"

IMAGE: jdlasica/Flickr
Last updated: Nov 19, 2013

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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