Some of the world's most innovative companies were built by people whose bosses told them they were failures. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk all were or are known as the kind of CEO who can reduce an underling to a quivering mound of jelly with a fiery dressing-down or an icy silence, the kind who motivates more through fear than praise. "You need to figure out where your priorities are," Musk supposedly chided one worker who dared to take time off to witness his child's birth.
Yahoo's Marissa Mayer fits this template. "Marissa is the type of boss that makes you feel like you're disappointing her at all times, so I always feel like I'm on the verge of being fired," Jeff Bonforte, Yahoo's senior vice president for communications products, told The New York Times. "It's never, 'Way to go, Jeff!'" Bonforte later amended his comments on Twitter, but what he said fits with other portraits of Mayer that have cast her as more than a little demanding, aloof, and perfectionistic.
Yet Yahoo is no Apple, Amazon, or Tesla. In the next few weeks, Mayer, having run out of other options, is expected to lay off a hefty chunk of her work force and begin the process of spinning off the core businesses of search, messaging, and media. (A spokeswoman had no comment on these rumors.) Welcomed as a savior upon her arrival in 2012, she is now regarded as merely the latest in a long line of Yahoo CEOs who promised to reverse the company's 15-year-long slide and then failed to deliver.
When she first arrived from Google, Mayer had the approval of 99 percent of her employees, according to Glassdoor, a website on which people can rate their employers. That number has fallen steadily over the ensuing three and a half years, and now stands at 71 percent. Compare that with 90 percent for Musk, 80 percent for Bezos, 91 percent for Microsoft's Satya Nadella, and 97 percent for Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Even AOL's Tim Armstrong, who presided over multiple rounds of layoffs and humiliating gaffes en route to selling the company to Verizon for $4.4 billion last year, comes in higher, at 74 percent.
Even those who've lost faith in Mayer--barely a third of her employees think the company has brighter days ahead--can hardly blame her for Yahoo's plight. Turning around a failing consumer tech company is notoriously hard. (Armstrong basically did it only by remaking AOL as an ad-tech rollup, and then exercising canny market timing in selling it.)
Yet it doesn't necessarily follow that Mayer is blameless for her squandering of goodwill. Last summer, after a New York Times exposé detailed the allegedly miserable work conditions at Amazon, numerous employees came forward to say they liked working in a culture where the reward for hard work is even harder work. The withholding-parent mode of CEOing gets results.
But for it to succeed, employees have to feel like they're being driven toward something bigger, not just being driven. The people who drink the Kool-Aid at Amazon do so because they buy into Bezos's vision of building the world's biggest and best marketplace. Musk's workers believe they're weaning mankind off fossil fuels and helping it colonize other planets. Jobs wanted to make computers more beautiful and easier to use.
A vision is something Mayer has conspicuously been lacking ever since her arrival. The closest she's come is a mashup of whatever's working for other tech companies (e.g., mobile, video), with the phrase "daily habits" slathered on to provide some Yahoo-ness.
Again, that doesn't make Yahoo's ongoing struggle her fault. If others had a bigger, better vision for Yahoo, they kept it to themselves. But it does mean that Mayer's Jobs-lite management style has made her a bad fit for Yahoo during what will probably end up being its final days as an independent entity. Great leaders can run their people hard because great employees, like sled dogs, love to pull their weight. But if you whip your dogs without telling them which way to mush, you're not leading them--you're just abusing them.