Hooray for Marissa Mayer

Winning in Silicon Valley is about technology, but it is about culture as well. Mayer's first job at Yahoo is to build culture, and she needs her deputies in the office.

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Three cheers for Marissa. She understands that business is civilized warfare. Being a loser in war is not pleasant. Your village gets pillaged. Your citizens become dispirited. Your population is abused and worse. When you lose in business, employees lose their motivation. Turnover skyrockets. Sales dwindle away. Every budget meeting is about death by 1000 cuts. Ultimately, the war ends, and the village is destroyed.

Winning in Silicon Valley is about technology but it is about culture as well -- determination, discipline, teamwork, commitment, belief that you can overcome adversity. Working remotely works extremely well if it is well thought our and embedded in a winning culture. In Yahoo's case, the winning culture is not there. Mayer will have to build it. When she finishes that job, WAHs (Work At Home employees) will be among her most effective, creative, and productive members of her team.

Mayer's communication with employees has been chewed over in the press and in blogs. The one criticism I would make is it focused too much on better decisions, insights, creativity, cafeteria discussions, speed, and quality and not enough on creating a winning corporate culture. When the culture is right, other things fall into place.

In the 1960's I was the first manager of marketing for Hewlett Packard's computer division. HP's first product was the 2116A--the heaviest, biggest, slowest, most expensive, and worst architected minicomputer on the market. The manager of the Los Angeles sales office told every salesman to come back to the office at the end of the day and tell each other about their successes, no matter how small. Going out on sales calls was torture, as customers explained the products shortcomings.

At HP we were committed to a great company and to creating a success. We loved HP. We did create a large and successful computer company.

In 1973, I joined Intel. Intel was a memory company. The Japanese drove us out of the memory business--extremely depressing to have the company heritage destroyed. We went on to win in microprocessors, but it was not easy. Competitors had better architectures. Their products ran on one power supply instead of three. Our sales force became demoralized as we lost on design after design. Key employees left to start competitive companies. But Intel had a winning culture.

We worked together. We supported one another. We agreed on a corporate goal that every division supported. That goal was to make the Intel architecture the industry standard. Divisions sacrificed their profits and allocated their resources to support the goal. Politics melted away and were subsumed by the corporate focus. In the end, Intel triumphed.

Intel's strong corporate culture powered its market victory.

Mayer's challenge is to create a winning culture at Yahoo. The problem is that we know how to create winning cultures when people work remotely in virtual worlds but not in physical ones.

I am sure that if Mayer was running a guild in World of Warcraft, her guild, like thousands of others, would be triumphant in Azeroth. The heads of Illidan, Arthas, Yogg-Saron, Kel'Thuzad, Anub'arak, and many more would be mounted on her walls. Unfortunately, we have not figured out how to create winning corporate cultures from whole cloth when too many employees spend major amounts of their time working remotely.

The winning corporate cultures that I was a part of at Hewlett Packard and Intel were a result of face-to-face interaction. We met together. Solved problems together. Traveled together. Supported one another in times of distress. Built lifelong friendships. Played together--tennis, golf, scuba dived, and skied. In the end we bonded and committed to a focused achievement.

Unfortunately, until Marissa can create the winning culture, Yahoo employees are going to have to show up physically at work. If Marissa cannot convince them to do this, there is no hope for the village.