Marissa Mayer is in the news again, this time for announcing she will take two weeks off on maternity leave when her twin girls are born. Oh, and she’ll be “working throughout”. The predictable media outcry is in full swing. Here’s the story

I agree it is not a helpful example to set. But I’m more concerned by the notion that a leader is so essential to a business that, even though she’s been there three years, she can’t leave for a few weeks. It’s been reported that the share price dipped on the news. If I were her, I’d find that profoundly depressing. There are twelve thousand people working at Yahoo. Does that indicate a market belief that she’s the only one keeping Yahoo going? (Other reports say the dip was in line with market moves, and not related to her news.)

When Marissa Mayer was appointed I wrote this piece, The myth of the leader, defending her right to be fallible, and to be a leader not a messiah. But maybe she likes it this way. When Yahoo’s new logo came out barely six months later, Mayer posted this blog:

“On a personal level, I love brands, logos, color, design, and, most of all, Adobe Illustrator. I think it’s one of the most incredible software packages ever made. I’m not a pro, but I know enough to be dangerous :)
So, one weekend this summer, I rolled up my sleeves and dove into the trenches with our logo design team: Bob Stohrer, Marc DeBartolomeis, Russ Khaydarov, and our intern Max Ma. We spent the majority of Saturday and Sunday designing the logo from start to finish, and we had a ton of fun weighing every minute detail.”

Almost the whole weekend. That’s how much it mattered! I don’t know who the three non-intern people are but even if they’re all fully up-to-date graphic designers well-versed in corporate identity, I’d still recommend taking a little longer. One’s response to any new design often changes as you get used to it. That’s one reason it’s usually recommended that you “live with it” before deciding.

The logo story troubles me in two ways. First, it trivialises brand identity. Sure, anyone can pop off for the weekend and have some fun on Adobe Illustrator – if you don’t think it matters too much. Odd that it mattered enough to change it, enough for the chief executive to spend most of her weekend on it, but it didn’t matter enough to do during the working week. Odd, too, that for something important enough for the chief executive to work on directly, it didn’t merit professional, expert help. Does she write the Yahoo code too? It surprises me that she could believe this is ok. This is either a bad way to get important stuff done, or a good way for the chief exec and others to waste their leisure time.

The other troubling thing (for an investor) is what this says about delegation and succession planning at Yahoo. The boss’s job is not to know it all and certainly not to do it all. That’s just not sustainable. If she gets ill will everything stop? Contrast this hands-on approach with that of John D Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, who apparently would often sit in meetings just listening while everyone else debated and worked out an action plan. Perhaps he was thinking. He also had a policy of hiring good people as and when he met them, confident they could be found useful roles soon enough. One imagines he didn’t spend his weekends drawing logos. Doing deals or playing golf, maybe. But not drawing logos. They’re too important to be left to the chief executive.

Comment | September 2015