Can Marissa Mayer save Yahoo? If she does she’ll be hailed as a great leader, in demand to turn around the next struggling digital media business, or maybe she’ll make a leap into another sector that needs her touch. If Yahoo doesn’t make it, well, it’s probably not her fault. There are lots of factors working against her, not least timing – it might just be too late. Do you see the logical fallacy here? Success is usually attributed to the leader, failure more often to the circumstances. Try the opposite to see how established this pattern is. It’d go something like this. If she succeeds: “She got lucky!” If she fails: “Well, it was there for the taking and she messed it up.” You just never see that, do you?

I’m sure Marissa Mayer has plenty of strengths and, I dare say, a few weaknesses. Most of us do. Her experience is all from Google but that’s not a bad place to spend your formative years and more. Her strategy for Yahoo seems to be to adopt some of the things that worked at Google, particularly localisation and personalisation (hard to argue with that; everyone’s doing it). But no one is saying they hired her to do what she did, or saw being done, at Google. No one wants to think they are aping the strategy of another business.  Instead, we have the myth of the leader, the belief that there is specialness in her. Undoubtedly there is some. Not everyone could take on the challenge of leading Yahoo. There is much more to leading a business than repeating actions that seemed to work before. At the same time, it is perhaps more honest to acknowledge that there is always an element of luck. Some people do similar things, and it works some of the time. There are all sorts of random factors at work – the patience of the shareholders maybe, the lucky break with winning some revenue that reinforces apparent success, even the media coverage that creates a positive narrative about what’s going on and so builds confidence and belief among employees, customers and investors, which in turn builds further success. A bunch of things happen to come together to create success; in different, equally random so equally probable, circumstances, the same strategy would not yield the same results.  That brilliant iconoclast Nassim Nicholas Taleb, best known for his second book, Black Swan, wrote entertainingly about this in his first book, Fooled By Randomness.

I’m tempted to wonder whether the whole media frenzy around Marissa Meyer would be different if she wasn’t a good-looking blonde. But then, Sheryl Sandberg is a brunette, and look at what she’s achieved. Now she’s shared her secrets of success in a book.  Thing is, unless you believe that all the  others who didn’t quite make it failed to “lean in” and all those who did “lean in” got to the top – patently not the case – then you can’t take her advice as a recipe for success. All you can conclude is that her approach has worked for her, in that particular set of circumstances. Perhaps we can learn from her experience, but no one should feel they have failed because they didn’t do what she says she did. It’s likely to be far more random than that.

So what does this mean for us ordinary folk?  The good news is, you don’t need to be Wonderwoman or Superman. The element of luck works both ways. On the other hand, we can’t just say, “Hire me, I got lucky before!”  Our actions do matter. They’re just not the whole story. When you approach a new role or challenge at work, your value is in what you’ve done and what you’ve learned. We, too, can reflect on our experience and see how our actions may have contributed to the outcomes and how different actions might have – might have – produced different outcomes. The result is double bubble: what you will replicate from past good outcomes, and what you will do differently to increase the odds of better ones. None of this is a certain formula for success, though. There are just too many variables beyond our control. That’s why I think the ultimate lesson is to do what you love. That way, whatever the outcome, you can enjoy the journey.

Comment | April 2013