Recently, the leadership skills of Yahoo’s “turn-around” CEO Marissa Mayer have come into question, for addressing what she deemed to be a symptom of a palpable organizational ailment. I was not surprised at the reaction to her decision concerning flexible work – which could only be described as visceral and sensational. However, in my mind, a broader leadership question looms.
At LinkedIn, editor Isabelle Roughol has recounted developments in the lives of both Yahoo and Groupon. Reading her post, I was struck with the importance of that pivotal “second chance” for ailing organizations – and the unique challenges faced by those leading that charge. Whether we are discussing Yahoo, Groupon, or J.C. Penney, one thing is brazenly obvious: diagnosing organizational issues and affecting change is a difficult road to travel. Leaders cast in the “savior” role stand the chance of losing the good fight. It’s a high risk business – and granting some measure of trust and latitude is certainly warranted.
In the case of Ms. Mayer, the proverbial “CEO alarm” was pulled the moment she revoked flexible work options. But, as the days passed and more information emerged, another aspect of the story became evident: the leadership challenges in an organization that is seeking change. Bit by bit, views surfaced that were vital to this leadership tale, including how Ms. Mayer determined she had a serious problem and what motivated her course of action. Personally, I don’t fault her for addressing, what she believes to be a “waning” collaborative environment at Yahoo. ( I don’t view this is an assault on flexible work.) Gathering key talent together, in the hopes of igniting change makes perfect sense. This action, at the very least begins to set behavioral expectations going forward for Yahoo. Critics abound – but really only time will tell if this action contributes to needed change.
Yahoo’s leadership story (and others like it) seem to be at least partially rooted in our level of confidence in leaders – or more specifically, the lack of such confidence. This seems counter intuitive, as on a very basic level, a leap of faith is required when any organization needs to evolve to save itself. We need to view leadership as the dynamic and risky business that it truly is. There has long been keen interest in specific leader attributes and how they impact success. However, this may have distracted us from a broader, more integrated definition. Leadership is often a complicated, layered role where follower perceptions, culture and context must meld to formulate a “second chance” strategy. Prescribing the skills for these leadership roles is an even more complicated task. Factor in the needed requirement of “experience reviving faltering organizations” and the required skill set becomes even more daunting to fulfill.
A leader’s right to develop the best possible “script” for highly specific leadership challenges seems critical. Marissa Mayer is faced with the task of assessing what Yahoo’s culture needs at this moment, to become healthy and productive. (I would hope that a modified flexible work policy will be hammered out as time passes.) Ultimately, a leader’s willingness to implement life-changing, and possibly unpopular organizational decisions in these “second chance” situations is required.
What do you think? Should we extend more confidence to high-level leaders?