What I learned from reading 28,000 words about Marissa Mayer this weekend

She only sleeps four hours a night, for one thing. I feel like this may be her true secret. It is like a mutation. Imagine how much any of us could get done if we weren’t just totally wasting and throwing away those eight pointless hours every night.

That detail must be important because it is mentioned a couple of times in the mega-profile of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Wausau’s most successful daughter, published by Business Insider on Saturday. It is a terrific long form piece and worth diving into. Mayer is an interesting person. She’s a somewhat robotic, somewhat brusque geek whose professional raison d’etre has been to think about and empathize with and help shape user experience. There’s a tension there. She’s an awkward, shy yet attractive and glamorous famous person, which is kind of interesting, too.

This weekend I also read the 3,000-word cover story in the September issue of Vogue and another cover story in the August issue of Success magazine, which I had never heard of but which bills itself as “What Achievers Read” (which also explains why I had never heard of it).

The BI piece was best, followed by the Vogue piece, followed at great distance by the Success piece.

How does Wausau come off in these profiles?

Super-supportive! Mayer’s old teachers from Wausau not only speak highly of her, they are shown to have had an important impact on her:

None of this is to say that Mayer had a sad, lonely time growing up in Wausau. She didn’t. Mayer is fond of Wausau. (…)

As a kid, Mayer’s peers in school had no idea what to make of her. Likewise, Mayer says she was “painfully shy” around them. But teachers? Teachers were Mayer’s kind of people.

In 2010, Mayer returned to her hometown to be inducted into the Wausau School District’s “Alumni Hall of Fame.” At a luncheon held in honor of her and 25 teachers retiring that year, Mayer gave a speech that the school district recorded in a video.

In the video, Mayer stands at a podium in a blue designer dress with a yellow corsage pinned on. She begins the speech by thanking her teachers, “each of whom changed my life forever.” Then she begins to list her teachers by name. As she does — “… Mr. Freedly, Mrs. Stay, Mr. Flanagan …” — you can see on Mayer’s face how important these people were to her growing up. About six names in, the timbre of Mayer’s voice actually breaks toward a sob, and she has to catch herself with a breath and a small gulp. She can’t stop her eyes from swelling with held-back tears, though.

The Vogue piece also describes her time growing up as packed full of enriching academic and extracurricular opportunities. In the BI piece, Mayer also goes out of her way to say that she never felt discouraged by anyone in Wausau from going into math and science because she was a girl.

Is Marissa Mayer a mean person?

Marissa MayerWell, look. She rose to the top of a multibillion-dollar, multinational corporation, Google, and now as CEO of another, Yahoo, was explicitly tasked with shaking up the corporate culture and changing the environment there. Of course there are going to be rivals and people who feel slighted along the way. A lot of them show up, often anonymously, in the BI piece. You sort of say, well, right, I’m sure everyone except Marissa Mayer who has succeeded in these corporate board rooms has been a total sweetheart to all and not at all self-interested.

But on the other hand, I recommend everyone read the portion of the BI profile that is headed “Yahoo: Year One,” because some of the ways she went about firing people she didn’t want to keep on were just cold as ice. And also she apparently has a habit of just skipping scheduled meetings with top lieutenants with no word and no explanation. That is not very nice and I don’t think it’s at all typical of most executives.

Then you have guys like this:

Mayer’s design-by-numbers approach to product development was not always popular. Famously, a lead designer named Doug Bowman quit Google over it. In a farewell blog post, Bowman wrote: “… a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.” Bowman went to Twitter.

What a special precious snowflake! I certainly understand why Mayer’s approach to design — which is to focus-group test every possible detail and be driven by data — would be demanding and annoying. But, dude, Google had $50 billion in revenue last year. Google did not become Google by not sweating details. It cannot be that much of a shock that its top executives want to make decisions based on actual data and not what makes you feel nurtured.

The BI profile is really good at illustrating the ways Mayer’s personality is just not given to the sort of backslapping, gregarious CEO style that is common for a reason, which is that it does work to build coalitions. Her style is more academic and pointed. That works too, but it obviously alienates some of the people.

Is Marissa Mayer the victim of sexism?

Well, yeah. The research on how people perceive female bosses is just depressing. But for the record I also think that it can be true both that Mayer is guilty of not being the most sensitive boss or colleague in the world in noteworthy ways and that she is going to be held unfairly to different standards because she is a woman.

Cue the freakout.The Vogue piece included a pretty striking photo, which has inspired the dumbest debate ever about whether a businesswoman should be allowed to wear a dress or something. I see the existence of this debate as evidence that Mayer is an an effective manipulator of media images. There is still a widespread perception that Yahoo is a stodgy old Internet dinosaur. A round of “Is Yahoo’s CEO too hot?” silly talk is going to be a pretty effective way of countering that perception. The photo, in other words, is a strategic business decision.

Is Marissa Mayer actually going to succeed in turning Yahoo around?

Marrissa Mayer, David KarpMaybe! The company actually surpassed Google last month in web traffic, a somewhat surprising fact but there it is. Mayer’s decision to ban working from home at Yahoo was the cause of much moaning but it certainly seems to have done exactly what it was meant to do. And basically everyone everywhere hailed the acquisition of Tumblr as a success for Yahoo. It seems like she really is remaking the company in interesting ways.

What do you think?

UPDATE 5:36 p.m. … Felix Salmon has a very smart blog post looking at Mayer’s good results in her first year at Yahoo but noticing that “it’s still far from clear what Mayer’s long-term strategy might be, or whether there even is one.”

About Robert Mentzer

I am the opinion editor at Daily Herald Media.
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