It’s the management, stupid — again

Once again we find some commentary in the press about the questionable management techniques in some large corporations. This time the commentary is about Yahoo! — again. Specifically, the New York Times Magazine had an extensive article by Nicholas Carlson titled “What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs” in its 21 December 2014 issue.

Although the Times article covers a number of management mistakes made by the highly paid ($117 million over 5 years) Mayer, I was particularly struck by a section about Mayer’s management style:

Mayer’s largest management problem, however, related to the start-up culture she had tried to instill. Early on, she banned working from home. This policy affected only 164 employees, but it was initiated months after she constructed an elaborate nursery in her office suite so that her son, Macallister, and his nanny could accompany her to work each day. Mayer also favored a system of quarterly performance reviews, or Q.P.R.s, that required every Yahoo employee, on every team, be ranked from 1 to 5. The system was meant to encourage hard work and weed out underperformers, but it soon produced the exact opposite. Because only so many 4s and 5s could be allotted, talented people no longer wanted to work together; strategic goals were sacrificed, as employees did not want to change projects and leave themselves open to a lower score.

In other words, it’s one of the prime tenets of Bad Management 101: Make sure that you alienate your most productive employees as soon as possible. If they leave, so what. In Silicon Valley all employees are interchangeable and easily replaced. Strangely, the telecommuter decision quoted above is something that I wrote about shortly after Mayer made that change.

The focus of Carlson’s article is on the difficulty of replicating startup miracles like that of Steve Jobs’ Apple. Hard in the best of times. What’s needed are leaders with the unique vision of a new, often disruptive market; the seeds of the necessary support infrastructure; proper financing; talented people to make realities out of mere ideas; tolerance of mistakes (if they’re made while pushing the limits); great timing — and luck.

There are few such intrepid leaders and, according to Carlson, Mayer may not be one of them, given the number and magnitudes of mistakes she’s made so far, including severe micromanagement. One of the most serious mistakes, as shown in the quote above, is arrogance. I wrote earlier that Mayer acted like an archetypical new manager, coming in to show who’s boss now by making changes in personnel or personnel practices. And, by the way, being clueless about the long term consequences of such actions. Most of the aforesaid talented people making realities out of mere ideas also know that they don’t have to put up with such nonsense.

They can leave or simply Dilbertize themselves. Because it’s the management, stupid.

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