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Marissa Mayer: What Has the New Yahoo CEO Gotten Herself Into?

Marissa Mayer's ascendance to the CEO post at Yahoo may look smart for the company. But is it good for her?

In taking up the CEO post at troubled Yahoo, has Marissa Mayer just thrown herself off of a glass cliff?

The phrase glass cliff was coined by psychology academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam. Instead of focusing on why it's so hard for women to get to the top, these two academics wanted to understand why it's so hard for the few who get to the top spot to be successful. They identified the 'glass cliff' phenomenon to explain why women in leadership positions come to be associated with higher risks of failure. 

Among their conclusions:

1. Because it is still so hard for women to be taken seriously enough to even be considered for a top spot, when they do get the chance--like Mayer--they jump at it.

When presented such a rare opportunity, they don't do enough due diligence and often hugely underestimate how desperate the company's plight is. They want that CEO title on their resumé, and that blinds them to the downsides the specific position represents. That Yahoo has had four CEOs in a year suggests that this is an inherently difficult position. None of the people who've left--or lost--it were stupid or inexperienced. Yahoo is a big name desperately in need of a competitive differentiator. By no one's measure is it a golden opportunity.

2. Most mental models of leadership remain doggedly male. That means that female CEOs are accused of betrayal if they act like men and routinely undervalued and too often challenged if they continue to act like women. That Mayer reportedly can be brusque and works very long hours surely won't endear her to anyone nor make her as productive as she thinks. The fact that Mayer's about to have her first child will make many people assume--however stupidly--that she is distracted.

3. Corporate boards, when in a crisis, feel the need to make a drastic move, to make a decision that is so uncharacteristic that it gives everyone hope that the company might also enjoy uncharacteristic success. What helps Yahoo looks more radical than appointing a woman--and a pregnant woman at that? The logic behind this is that a hugely different leader will necessarily create hugely different results. Already, the media have hailed Yahoo’s appointment as bold--as if that means anything substantive.

I would like this all to be wrong but know from my own experience that it's right. Does that mean it's true for Marissa Mayer? Well, it's clearly the case that a CEO spot wasn't going to open up for Mayer at Google any time soon. The Yahoo board does need to appear to be able to do something decisive. It's unclear whether the macho culture at Yahoo was ever significantly changed by Carol Bartz. And it's hard to imagine anyone has had much time to do real diligence around Yahoo except to know that the situation is one that few people would seek.

I hope Mayer succeeds. If she does, hers will be a great success, because she’s walking into a huge mess. We need to see more mothers showing they can run software businesses (if that's what Yahoo still is), and the search market desperately needs better consumer choices. And, ever since I encountered it, I've wanted the glass-cliff argument to be wrong.

As for the ancient question, "Can she have it all?" The answer is, and always has been, easy: Men do. Why not women? 

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Last updated: Jul 18, 2012

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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