Lesson from Marissa Mayer: You have to ruthlessly prioritize

As the CEO of Yahoo!, a company in turnaround, Marissa Mayer has to make some tough decisions. In February she banned her employees from working at home, citing that the small number of employees (200 out of 12,000) who worked from home were not pulling their weight. They were working minimal hours, “blowing off work,” and even starting their own start-ups on the side rather than focusing on the work for which they were being paid.

The majority of Yahoo! workers don’t see the ban as a huge problem. They are happy with the collaborative environment in the work place (as well as the free food in the cafeteria!) and moral has been boosted; employees no longer feel they are working for a dying company. Mayer made a tough decision, but she knows what her goals and priorities are for reviving the company, and she was willing to draw criticism because she felt she had made the right move for Yahoo!. And she’s being proved correct. Yahoo! has seen a large increase in job applications from competitors in the last few months.

Mayer admits that she has always been incredibly focused, and has always put herself to the test by taking on challenging, difficult work that will allow her capabilities to grow. In 1999 she graduated with a BA in symbolic science from Stanford University and numerous job offers followed. Of the many offers she decided to go with a young start-up named Google. Over the next 11 years she rose very quickly through the echelons of that fast-growing company. She engineered, designed, project managed, and later became an executive in areas coving all of Google’s major advances, ideas that have now become household names: Google Search, Google Images, Google News, Google Maps, Google Books, Google Product Search, Google Toolbar, iGoogle and Gmail. Anyone who uses the internet, even at the most minimal level, today, will recognize, not only the importance of these inventions, but their nigh-on necessity.

But the real story begins 2011 when Marissa Mayer joined the floundering Yahoo! corporation as CEO. Mayer’s job was to engineer Yahoo!’s turnaround, which she has been doing with amazing creativity and visible success. She immediately understood that Yahoo! had a wonderful and unique community which she wanted to use to the company’s advantage. In order to make the workplace even more social and engaging she opened up a free cafeteria for the workers and handed out Smartphone’s to everyone (as her two main focuses were enhancing the community of the company while working toward a conceptual shift for Yahoo! toward mobile communications).

Mayer, who happens to be the youngest women CEO in history of a multi-billion dollar company, also noted, immediately, that talented young employees were leaving the company not because of unhappiness in the work place, but, because the majority of interesting new innovations were happening at other companies. The once groundbreaking company that she had taken on was stagnating. How could she invite young talent to stay?

Mayer decided to push ahead with the idea of innovating, returning Yahoo! to its status as a necessary component of our modern internet experience. In order to keep her talent interested she immediately broke employees into small teams to work on “far-flung” and interesting ideas. Mayer notes that “when you surround yourself with smart people, they challenge you and elevate the way you think.” These “far-flung” concepts lead, within a year, to the new Yahoo! home page, as well as a number of incredible partnerships with other companies and a groundbreaking focus on mobile applications offered by Yahoo! to people who are on the go with Smartphones and iPads.

Outside of the high powered business world Mayer was also breaking down other stigmas. She has managed to balance having a son while running a major corporation. And this is no small feat. Studies show that many successful women feel they can’t afford the time for a family or personal fulfillment outside of the workplace. However, in an interesting twist, studies are also finding that most successful business entrepreneurs who “run their own show,” and rise to the occasion, are more successful because of the life experience they garner, not only in the work place, but also outside of it.

Mayer knows this all too well; when asked how she manages these two time consuming tasks, being a mother and being a CEO, she always answers: “You have to ruthlessly prioritize.” She admits that she thought that the job would be hard and the son a pleasure, but, to her happy surprise, she has found that both the job and her son are a pleasure. She has found a balance.

And while Mayer may “ruthlessly prioritize,” she seems to do so in order to make time, not just for inventing groundbreaking technology, but also for listening to the wants, needs and ideas of her employees. She is always ready to give huge thanks for the hard work that engineers put into creating new concepts. She often jokes that she, too, has seen many a sleepless night and forgotten to take a shower. But, as Mayer says in a 2011 Forbes interview, building a strong company culture is essential. Mayer is returning Yahoo! to its landmark status for technological innovation with the simple idea that “strong companies have strong cultures,” and that amplifies the ability for individual employees to innovate.

So, let’s look at how Mayer prioritized when she took over Yahoo!; she set three main goals: bolstering and building the already strong Yahoo! community, taking the company on a technological leap to mobile applications, and building partnerships with other strong internet and tech. providers. She had achieved all of those goals within an 18 month period and is already on to new projects. This has not been an easy road, however, because Yahoo! has fallen far behind other internet providers. But, thanks to Mayer’s ruthless prioritizing, Yahoo! can now boast 700 million viewers a month and increasing interest in its stock. As always, Mayer has chosen to take on a challenge. And though she may have her critics, Yahoo! is no longer a floundering company, it has made those partnerships with huge corporations word wide, and it is still a household name.

Perhaps the question, then, is not just about ruthlessly prioritizing, but about how to best decide what top priorities should be? Mayer agreed to captain what many called a “sinking ship.” She astutely noted what her first priorities were to address, she quickly addressed them, and the company’s stocks began going up. Now that those first steps have been taken she has moved on to a new list of priorities. It will be interesting to see what she comes up with next.

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