Like most female tech executives, Marissa Mayer is a feminist’s worst nightmare. For one thing, she is ruthlessly focused on merit, claiming to be “gender blind,” which annoys women-in-tech campaigners no end. They say women should be given special consideration to redress the gender imbalance in the industry. Some even believe in the installation of quotas.
Secondly, she infamously told a women in business conference that having a baby while trying to turn Yahoo! around was “way easier than everyone made it out to be”—omitting to mention that it was only possible because she had full-time nursery staff paid for by Yahoo!. Not exactly sticking up for the sisterhood.
Finally: she’s making a bit of a mess of things at the moment, and with so few women running big companies, every woman is scrutinized and, perhaps unfairly, seen as a reliable predictor of female performance in top jobs. So the headlines about rudeness, lateness, bossy behaviour and what have you have an impact on other women.
Even if it’s true that some criticism of her has been tinged by sexism, gender arguments cut both ways: it’s hard to imagine a male executive who behaved for one day as Mayer does on a daily basis remaining in his post for long. You could argue that Mayer gets away with a lot because she can be persuasive, charming and she’s a lot easier on the eye than a fat old guy in a pinstripe suit.
But here’s a hard truth: deals with key advertising clients are being put at risk by Mayer’s lack of respect for crucial business relationships that fall outside her area of expertise and by her hilariously, notoriously disrespectful approach to other people’s time. In other words, Mayer is objectively failing to perform some of the key responsibilities of her role as CEO, and it’s on those metrics we should judge her—precisely as she herself would no doubt insist of her own subordinates.
A new book by Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson sets out why Mayer is struggling to keep it together as chief executive. We discover some disturbing hallmarks of dysfunctional leadership: self-importance, schoolmarmishness, a lack of intellectual humility and what can only be described as breathtaking insensitivity and arrogance when it comes to the feelings, not to mention the schedules, of people around her.
These perceived personal failings are compounded by disinterest in the business side of things, which makes you wonder why Yahoo!’s board ever thought she’d be a good CEO at all. At Google, Carlson wrote in a column last year, Mayer was “all about the product.” She was focused on users but totally unmoved by business. At Yahoo!, that pattern has continued—and, some say, got worse.
Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! is Nicholas Carlson’s attempt to situate himself in the gallery of technology journalists capable of producing genuinely substantial work that changes how key figures in the industry are perceived. That gallery is small: most technology writers, even in some very esteemed publications, are badly informed about their subjects and shockingly poorly read. I know people whose full-time job it is to report on Apple who have not read Walter Isaacson’s landmark biography of Steve Jobs. Such lack of care is inexcusable, but, sadly, typical of the sloppy tech journalism world.
Carlson is not one of those writers, and his first book-length project has a reasonable claim to being the most definitive version of Yahoo! and of Marissa Mayer’s life and work yet assembled. In fact, it deserves to be regarded now as the standard account, both of the company’s history to date and Mayer’s place in the story so far.
I wrote a short-lived column for Business Insider in 2014. It never took off because I didn’t nail what Carlson does so well: atomised, quick-hit, “here’s the one detail you really need to know” storytelling. Occasionally that BI house style makes the book feel uneven—like a compilation of the author’s best writing on Yahoo!, rather than a cohesive book-length account—but for the most part his approach to storytelling is sound.
Carlson’s command of the material, and insider knowledge, is impressive. Although—mercifully—a great deal more concise, Marissa Mayer reminds me of Aaron Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail, and it offers a similarly damning verdict of its chosen material. I read the book for the second time, in a single sitting, on the plane back from New York last night and was left convinced that Yahoo! is doomed so long as Mayer remains in place.
Of course, there have been dissenters to this view, keen to defend her from the charges Carlson lays out. Outspoken entrepreneur and investor Jason Calacanis went so far as to call Carlson’s account “complete bullshit,” claiming that it was “embarrassing” for the New York Times to have run extracts from it. The most charitable interpretation of Calacanis’s argument is: Carlson’s book is a brilliant explanation of why journalists are bearish on Mayer, but perhaps not the systematic demolition of her record as chief executive that it could have been. (Or that is warranted by the facts, Calacanis would say.)
Regardless, Carlson’s book remains the best lengthy account of what’s going on at Sunnyvale. It is hard to take Calacanis’s charge of “gotcha journalism” seriously, given how even-handed and meticulously researched Marissa Mayer is throughout, testament to expert insider knowledge of one of its primary sources, Re/code editor and long-time Yahoo!-watcher Kara Swisher.
I have a few small complaints about the book. I wish Carlson, or his publisher, had spent a bit more time smoothing out the last fifty pages. There are some ugly solecisms and awkward leaps, particularly in the last chapter. And the epilogue is a real mess. It’s always a challenge with ongoing events to wrap a book up neatly—you are always against the clock, and events continue even as you send the manuscript off to be printed—but I think a tighter conclusion might have been put together. The book sort of… stops, ending almost impressionistically but not very satisfactorily.
And I’d like to have heard a bit more about Mayer’s background and why she became the awkward, shy, nerdy workaholic who was great in a crowd but terrible to work with in person. Carlson’s not a Kitty Kelley sort of writer, but I felt he skipped over the aetiology of Marissa Mayer a little too quickly, spending too much time giving a somewhat formulaic, if at least well-paced, history of the company and not enough discussing Mayer’s own, evidently very unique, psychology.
Flippancy and short-cutting that would be fine in an online column is irritating in a book. Don’t tell me there are “million reasons” for something and only give me one of them. There is a tedious East Coast attitude—part horrified, part admiring—to profanity. (Specifically, that of former CEO Carol Bartz.) Referring to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as the “queen [sic] of England” is inexcusable.
And one other thing: Carlson is oddly preoccupied with hair—specifically, who’s losing it. Mildly obsessed, in fact. Barely a character is introduced to us who is not described as “thinning,” “bald” or some other variation. Is Carlson himself suffering from the tonsorial ravages of middle-age? We may never know. But if you’re keen to know about the state of any of Yahoo!’s key players’ barnets, this is definitely the book for you. But really I’m just digging for things to gripe about now.
Incidentally, the only column of mine Business Insider ever knocked back was 750 words setting out why Mayer should resign. That was in June last year. Ahead of my time, I suppose.
Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!
By Nicholas Carlson
Twelve, $15.38 (Kindle)
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