Marissa Mayer and Yahoo: Silicon Valley’s New Odd Couple?
While #Marissa Mayer‘s decision to leave Google for #Yahoo on Monday appeared to take the former by surprise, perhaps it shouldn’t have. Back in 2009, Google execs saw Mayer as a flight risk. As a New York Times article detailed at the time, Mayer’s then-boss, Jonathan Rosenberg, tracked her down on vacation in Africa to ask if she was leaving.
She wasn’t, and went out of her way to tell Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin that she had no plans to leave. The fact that the two were worried is a good indication of Mayer’s standing there.
Mayer had not only been at the company a very long time by Silicon Valley standards — she joined in 1999 as employee number 20 — but she was also a high-profile female executive with a reputation for getting things done and imbuing the company with a keen sense of style.
Mayer’s influence was felt in many ways at the company, not least of which is the iconic spartan look of its homepage. That white space-heavy look was a reflection of Mayer’s tastes, which ran to the glass artwork of Dale Chihuly (whose opulent ceiling display in her San Francisco penthouse raised eyebrows in 2011) to the Marimekko prints that once hung in her childhood home in Wausau, Wis.
In profiles of Mayer, she comes across as a kindred spirit to Apple’s Steve Jobs in both her attention to detail and her allegiance to a design aesthetic. In one anecdote, Mayer asked her team to test 41 gradiations of blue to see which one consumers preferred best. The Jobs comparison also applies in the negative as well — Mayer’s sense of entitlement led her to cause a traffic jam in San Francisco during the rain at rush hour to install her Chihuly artwork.
Mayer’s perfectionism will be tested at Yahoo, which is known more these days for its dwindling market share and its succession of failed chief executives than for a commitment to anything beyond stemming its decline. However, Mayer, whose net worth has been estimated in the $300 million range, may be seeking a chance to prove herself and emerge from Brin and Page’s shadow.
Dubbed “The Google Princess” by Gawker for her pull-out-all-the-stops 2009 wedding, Mayer clearly doesn’t shun the limelight.
Yet Mayer is no grinning figurehead, but a seasoned executive. As she explained in a 2008 interview with Fast Company, Mayer had embraced the chaos of management. At one point, as Mayer recalled, “I had a flow chart on my wall with, like, 127 people to notify and 37 possible launch dates.”
Dealing with an overabundance of responsibility is one thing and playing the type of office politics that appear to be needed at Yahoo is another, though. Carol Bartz, Yahoo’s former CEO, characterized that company’s board of directors as incompetent and passive-aggressive.
Bartz recalled that then-chairman Roy Bostock read from a script as he fired her over the phone. In Bartz’s view, the board never recovered from its decision to turn down Microsoft’s $40 billion acquisition bid in 2008.
“The board was so spooked by being cast as the worst board in the country,” Bartz says. “Now they’re trying to show that they’re not the doofuses that they are.”
Whether Mayer will be able to right Yahoo’s famously undisciplined ship — and instill the company with Google’s more spartan sense of design and focus — is anyone’s guess.