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Marissa Mayer and the New Breed of Product Manager CEOs

The Yahoo boss's combination of skills is vastly different from that of most traditional CEOs. She isn't a perfect executive, but she embodies the traits that companies need in a leader.
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In the past year as Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Mayer has been able to double the search engine's stock price, recharge the Yahoo brand, have a baby, and top Fortune's "40 Under 40" list.

As Slate writes, Mayer is not a perfect manager, but that's because she doesn't manage people, she manages ideas. It's this kind of chief executive, a visionary product manager, that startups need to bring innovative products to customers.

The new ideal CEO that Auerbach describes, doesn't chalk up all the company's success as her own, but rather recognizes it's due to the skilled team members who work for her. "She works as a peer to draw the necessary connections between them and keep them in sync. She pays attention to the existing self-organization of small groups of smart people and sympathetically exerts soft power to try to leverage their skills on a larger scale, without wrecking what they already do well," he writes. "She does not build from the ground up, but helps fit pieces together--horizontally."

Mayer is a blend of strengths and weaknesses that doesn't remind anyone of the typical executive who delegates her vision to underlings and scratches other board members' backs. Instead, she's more in the Steve Jobs mold. "As a Google product manager and later executive, Mayer was credited with enforcing a rigid vision across Google's user-facing properties; she became the linchpin of integration between products, and she kept tabs on every engineer and designer, high and low," David Auerbach writes in Slate. "She is also accused of being stubbornly single-minded, ignoring others' opinions, disrespecting seniority and prestige, and being more focused on vision than on necessary compromises or Yahoo's quarterly earnings."

Because of that notoriously hands-on, stubborn approach, Auerbach writes, Mayer is able to craft a vision and see it through until it's perfect. "Her confidence and meticulousness are far more valuable than the business connections of the over-entitled, macho executives she replaced," he writes. Even though some of Mayer's tactics as product manager-in-chief, like not letting anyone work remotely, have been criticized, she's a more desirable type of executive than a "corporate hatchet woman like HP's Carly Fiorina," and "an unrepentant economy wrecker like Lehman's Dick Fuld."

So however you think of Mayer, as a coder-geek-icon, a super-woman CEO, or a stubborn smarty-pants, you need to recognize that her abilities as a product manager "have very little to do with the traditional values" of the stereotypical CEO. The new breed of executive develops skills "from working in the trenches, not in boardrooms," Auerbach writes.

So, what kind of CEO are you? Are you a manager of people, or a manager of products and ideas? Let us know what you think is the best kind of executive to lead a startup.

IMAGE: Jorg Meyer
Last updated: Dec 13, 2013

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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