Keil Hubert: The Demise of a Triumphal CEO

Power tends to corrupt, and you can usually see the corruption set in if you’re paying attention. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that Marissa Mayer’s tenure at the head of Yahoo! was marked by some bizarre decisions that should have motivated her friends to speak up.

This subject has been eating at me for about a month now, and it’s pushed a number of other topics off the table for me. A few week’s back, I were having a spirited discussion about the possible future of Yahoo! when Nicolas Carlson’s 17th December piece in the The New York Times Magazine came up. I’d missed the article when it first ran, but I’ve devoured it a half-dozen times since then – twice today alone – because the behind-the-curtain story that Carlson wrote really ticks me off.

There are several elements to the story that annoy me, but don’t particularly surprise me. I was working at Yahoo! back when its stock price plummeted like a brick between 2000 and 2001. I remember just how disjointed and bizarre the company’s plans and practices were. So, Mr Carlson’s explanation of how Yahoo! has likely lost the plot seems perfectly believable. Yahoo! is a company that made its early fortune selling adverts on the web; it isn’t very competitive flogging that tired, old business model any longer now that Google has dominated that space. Heck, flogging banner ads was a losing strategy in 2000 while Google was in beta, and it hasn’t gotten any fresher since then.

If that’s all there was to the story, I wouldn’t have given it much thought (let alone a second read). What really bothered me were Carlson’s stories of what it was supposedly like working inside Big Y for ‘turnaround wunderkind’ Marissa Mayer. Here’s a good example, from the NYTM article:

‘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.’

The sheer audacity of such a move makes me see red. To be fair, I don’t want to condemn Ms Mayer strictly on the basis of one observer’s tale that I can’t independently substantiate. For all I know, Ms Mayer is a delightful person who never did any such thing, and was slandered by a jealous rival in a fit of pique. The story might have happened just as it was written; it might not have.

I haven't met her yet in person. For all I know, she moonlights as a nurse in a children's hospital and gives her wealth anonymously to homeless shelters. Or she might be a Bond Villain with a fully-stocked volcano lair.
I haven’t met her yet in person. For all I know, she moonlights as a nurse in a children’s hospital and gives her wealth anonymously to homeless shelters. Or she might be a Bond Villain with a fully-stocked volcano lair.

That being said, I find the story to be plausible specifically because I’ve run into this sort practice many times, both inside Yahoo! and elsewhere. I’ve worked with and for a great many ‘Horrible Bobs’ who enforced blatant double standards when it came to workplace behaviour, without displaying so much as a twinge of shame over their galling hypocrisy. There’s a peculiar defect that occasionally manifests in the human mind where a person becomes blind to how they’re obviously doing the very thing that they condemn and punish in others. That’s why I suspect that Mr Carlson’s rendition of events is likely an accurate interpretation of what happened. Further, I think that the three sentences that he devoted to the elimination of telecommuting at Yahoo! tell us a much larger story about Ms Mayer’s (alleged) staggering hubris and its corrosive effect on employee morale.

For clarification’s sake, I don’t think that the point is about the revocation of workers’ ability to work from home; I’m not a fan of telecommuting, and see the value in having your teammates where you can reach them quickly during business hours. [1] Rather, what grinds my gears about this story is the executive’s (alleged) willingness to build a damned nursery into her office suite. That revelation left me gobsmacked. The sheer abusive arrogance of it took my breath away.

To be clear, I’m not taking umbrage with the practice of bringing your sprogs to the office. I’m for the exact opposite, in fact: I wholeheartedly approve of offering employees reasonable and convenient childcare as a sponsored benefit. Yahoo! corporate brags on their employee benefits site that their headquarters features an on-site crèche. [2] Here in the US, the problem of finding decent and affordable childcare can have a devastating impact on a young professional’s early career.

Let’s look at Ms Mayer’s (alleged) en-suite nursery from a different lens: if your company is magnanimously offering all of your employees on-site childcare, then why exactly do you need a private suite for your own precious whelp? Put another way, why the hell aren’t you using your own company’s services? Why does your toothless rug-rat warrant a private office when all the other kiddies are staying in the official corral? Can any other working mother in the company requisition and build out a private nursery inside the workplace? Or is this ‘benefit’ limited to only you?

That’s that part of this story that gets me thoroughly aggravated. I suspect that it’s the American in me talking here; I realize that I have a strong egalitarian streak. Us Americans don’t really have much of a class system, and our national creation myths stress the (mostly fictional) notion that anyone can achieve fame, fortune, or favour if only they work hard enough. [3] Part and parcel of our (naïve but optimistic) worldview is the idea that all people are essentially equal – and, therefore, deserve the same fair chance to succeed. A person’s professional success (and, thereby, one’s societal worth) should result from from one’s determination and effort. Along those lines, a person’s ability to succeed at work shouldn’t be undermined by the boss’s (or bosses’) restriction of workplace perks. The boss should not be deliberately constructing obstacles in your personal path to success.

'I'm beginning to think that my boss wasn't entirely honest about her wanting me to meet my quarterly sales targets.'
‘I’m beginning to think that my boss wasn’t entirely honest about her wanting me to meet my quarterly sales targets.’

That’s why most of us Yanks don’t buy into the myth that business executives are demi-gods, worthy of exclusive benefits that are far beyond the reach of mere mortal labourers. We already have a perfectly fine method for compensating people commensurate with their contributions to the bottom line: we pay them more. In theory, the fellow who makes the million quid deals gets paid a salary and bonuses that are greater than the fellow who empties the ashtrays in the executive boardroom. [4] Beyond that… both fellows are functionally-identical human beings, and therefore deserve the same health care options, the same company life insurance coverage, and the same damned childcare offerings as everyone else. There should not be two separate-but-unequal offerings.

I completely understand why an executive with a million quid pay packet might want additional security at her child’s daycare in order to thwart potential kidnappers. I can also understand why she might want to hire the best tutors that she can afford to give little Bob Junior a leg up. I don’t see anything wrong with pursuing such features, provided she purchase those advanced services when and where they’re available. That’s as good a use of an executive’s repugnantly-large pay packet as any other pursuit. I do not agree that the company should approve an exception to the standard benefits package that provides only one executive with a company-provided benefit that isn’t also offered to the rest of the employees.

I’ll even go so far as to say that such exceptions to the standard can be made available at-cost; if you can afford the frightening surcharge for it, then sure: you, too, can buy a private nursery suite in your office block. The discriminator between the worker who chooses to use the benefit and the one that chooses not to becomes the individual’s willingness to pay the price to get what they want. That’s inherently fair. That’s also as far as I’m willing to take the idea.

I’m also okay with workers looking at a company-provided perk and deciding that it doesn’t measure up. If an executive thinks that the company-provided service doesn’t live up to her expectations, then the only morally-defensible approach to resolving the problem is for her to evolve the system – to improve it so that everyone who makes use of it will gain the desired improvements. I can respect that. Deciding that the company solution doesn’t measure up and then demanding that the company give you – and only you – a better service is arrogant, abusive, and reprehensible. It’s a obscene gesture to the rank-and-file: it shows that you’re only concerned with improving your own situation, and give exactly zero *#&s for the people under you.

Maybe it’s an American notion to look at one’s co-workers and say: ‘I’m not better than you, and you’re not better than me.’ We can appreciate and work around relative differences in power, rank, prestige, pull, and responsibility. We recognize that he janitor gets to make recommendations, but the company president gets the final say. That’s fine – that’s just business. We all agreed to play by those rules when we signed on with the company.

'Have you accepted the vice president of marketing as your personal lord and saviour?'
‘Have you accepted the vice president of marketing as your personal lord and saviour?’

What we didn’t agree to do was to surrender our fundamental human dignity to appease a semi-divine Pharaoh figure with a thousand quid hairdo. Just because some random string of encounters gave The Boss access all the right breaks growing up, that doesn’t mean that The Boss’s life is worth anymore than anyone else’s. With limited exception, we tend to vehemently reject any assertion to that effect.

‘We’, in this case, means the Guys on the Line. The normal folk. The workers. The ‘us’ in the ‘us versus them’ equation, when ‘them’ refers to the people on the top floor who simply aren’t subject to the rules that govern the rest of us. Once a person transitions from one side of that ≠ sign to the other, the ascended person’s perceptions start to warp. At first, they simply marvel at the delightful perks that come standard with their new status. Over time, they start to rationalize that they somehow deserve better treatment than what’s afforded to the average Joe. Finally, in the terminal phase of the disease, they emotionally disassociate themselves from pedestrian humanity and start to demand that the entire world treat them differently to how it treats their disposable serfs. They condescendingly perceive their subordinates as nothing more than expendable minions – nameless peons, fit only to build them a pyramid.

That is what fires me up about the en-suite childcare perq attributed to Yahoo!’s Mayer: it strikes me as a ghastly exploitation of her power as CEO. It suggests that she’d taken that last despicable step on the irreversible path from powerful leader to megalomaniacal tyrant.  It would not have surprised me at all in Mr Carlson’s tale to read that Ms Mayer had ordered her web developers to start quarrying blocks of limestone for a new Yahoo! headquarters on the banks of the Nile.

Am I being facetious here? Of course I am. I’m a humourist as much as I am a pundit. I’m exaggerating the scope of the problem in order to convey a crucial idea: at some fateful point in many senior leaders’ careers, the ‘special’ treatment that they receive from their subordinates starts to warp their perceptions of right and wrong. If left unchecked, this corrosive twisting of their worldview can turn a formerly reasonable person into an amoral and conscienceless b*****d. Worst of all, the corrupted executive often can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t immediately agree with them. They lose their ability to empathize with ‘normal’ people. The reject any input that challenges their unfathomable worldview. Mayhem inevitably ensures.

That in mind, I’d like to suggest one more hypothesis about this private-crèche story: as Ms Mayer climbed her career ladder – first as a manager at Google, and later all the way up to the top of Big Y – I suspect that Mayer’s mentors, supporters, and peers did her a critical disservice. When Ms Mayer achieved her early successes and starting piling up fortune, fame and influence, her so-called friends fed her growing ego rather than do anything to keep her ego grounded. Her sycophants told her that she was special. They told her that she deserved her success. They told her that she was brilliant, and that only her unique greatness could be the cause of all of her successes. Those are the sorts of dulcet lies that we all want to hear – that we’re great, and special, and loved. Being told that you were just lucky and probably screwed some things up tends to ruin the moment.

'Trouser-free Thursdays was a terrible idea, Bob!'
‘Trouser-free Thursdays was a terrible idea, Bob!’

And so it (probably went): as Ms Mayer began to explore her extraordinary new world of praise, perks, and fawning toadies, no one in her entourage loved her enough to whisper a memento mori in her ear. Without a trusted friend to remind her that she was lucky (rather than special), she began to believe the hype that made her feel good… thereby reinforcing the notion that anything she did must be great. Because she was great. Everyone said so…

In that respect, I don’t see the private-crèche story in Mr Carson’s tale as sufficient grounds for condemning Ms Mayer alone. Likewise, I don’t see her current fall from grace as Yahoo!’s CEO as a simple story of one bad executive making bad decisions. Rather, I see it as the inevitable and tragic end product of a well-meaning and somewhat talented tech manager being led down the garden path by their so-called supporters. Whatever good she intended to bring to the company was clearly tainted by her inability to separate cause and effect in the application of her leadership decisions.

The takeaway to this long rant is that we (all of us) in the business world have a moral responsibility to our co-workers and to our superiors to speak harsh truths to the people in power. Those of us in power have an equal moral responsibly to listen to our critics. We all have to recognize when our egos are colouring our understanding of reality, and take deliberate steps to remain grounded in the real world.

Unfortunately, far too many executives lose touch with reality as they rise to the top of the company. I submit that this is often our fault for not speaking out as much as it is theirs for not listening to us. We’re all in this together, like the crew of a ship tossed about on stormy seas. I suspect that Ms Mayer’s increasingly incongruous and ineffective leadership decisions at the helm of Yahoo! should be equally attributed both to her, and to the people that put her on Yahoo!’s bridge in the first place… and those folks that that kept her there despite her inability to make rational decisions.

The private crèche decision was a blatantly obvious block in the construction of Ms Mayer’s ego-pyramid. Someone should have helped her to see just how elitist, offensive, and inappropriate that decision was just as soon as she broached the idea. Maybe if someone could have shocked her out of her reverie, Ms Mayer could have taken a step back and realized that she’d lost touch with the people she was expected to lead. She might have sought out the advice of wiser people, and checked her swelling ego. Yahoo! might, just might, have gone down a different, better path.

If you’re going to run a company (or even a department), make sure that you keep a critic close by who is immune to your power and is unimpressed by your success – someone who will not hesitate to tell you when you’re making a daft decision. You don’t have to give them veto power over your actions, but you’ll be a damned fool if you don’t seriously consider their arguments. After all, you’re only mortal.

[1] That’s another column.

[2] Admittedly, they only talk about it on the ‘brag page’ for their facility in India, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that they have one at the California complex, too. It seems like the kind of Silicon Valley perk that every major tech company would have.

[3] The practical reality of inequality and the stacked deck that is life in modern America is much more disillusioning. Still, we’re talking about guiding principles here rather than bleak truths.

[4] I realize and appreciate that our pay-for-performance system is largely fictitious and destructive, but that’s another column.

POC is Keil Hubert,
Follow him on twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership and IT interviewing at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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