My book, “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!,” opens with Mayer onstage at an all-company meeting hosted in Yahoo’s huge cafeteria, called URLs.
The point of the meeting was for Mayer to answer some hard questions from Yahoo employees.
During the week before the big meeting, employees submitted the questions anonymously, using Yahoo’s internal network. Then, other employees were able to vote up the questions they most wanted answered.
The anonymous Q&A, at the beginning of my book, was very popular with employees. They rightly gave Mayer a lot of credit for taking such hard questions. They asked her if she would do it again, and, despite advice from some of her industry friends, Mayer said she would. In Spring 2014, Mayer held another one.
In this post, we’ll go over some of the questions asked at both meetings, as they provide great insight into what’s going on at Yahoo.
Many of the most popular questions at both meetings were about something the employees called “QPRs” — quarterly performance reviews. Employees from Mayer’s direct reports on down would get a score every quarter, from one to five. A one meant the employee consistently “misses” goals, a two meant the employee “occasionally misses,” a three, “achieves,” a four, “exceeds,” and a five, “greatly exceeds.” Mayer then told managers to put a certain percentage of the employees they managed in each of the five buckets. Ten per cent would go into “greatly exceeds,” 25% in “exceeds,” 50 per cent into “achieves,” 10 per cent into “occasionally misses,” and 5% into “misses.”
QPRs were effectively a stank-ranking of employees. A year before the first FYI, Mayer had introduced them to Yahoo as a way of weeding out under-performers and controlling costs. The process was painful — it cost a lot of people promotions and coveted transfers — and in their anonymous questions, the employees let Mayer know their angst.
One popular question:
I was forced to give an employee an occasionally misses, [and] was very uncomfortable with it. Now I have to have a discussion about it when I have my QPR meetings. I feel so uncomfortable because in order to meet the bell curve, I have to tell the employee that they missed when I truly don’t believe it to be the case. I understand we want to weed out mis-hires/people not meeting their goals, but this practice is concerning. I don’t want to lose the person mentally. How do we justify?
At Mayer’s second anonymous Q&A many more Yahoo employees had questions about Mayer’s overall strategy, operating tactics, and views on specific products.
Here are some examples.
An employee asked why Yahoo doesn’t ship internationally the way Google, FB, Apple, and MSFT do. “A reason why Google, FB, Apple or even Msft do well and truly grow is because they deploy *global* products. We don’t. We build US-centric products and *then* try to figure out how to port them to other markets. (Alright, there are a few exceptions.) We can’t hope to grow that way. Sim-shipping around the globe should be the norm, and in every Eng or PM goals. We should even use our non-US markets to pre-release and test new stuff.”
An employee asked why Yahoo is doing redesigns without purpose. “We have redesigned a lot of products to make it look like we are still paying attention to them. Unfortunately, many of these redesigns were surface deep. Some redesigns made product usability worse. Some were just plain ugly or boring. Most did not add any value for the user or create an advantage over competitors. Thus, a lot of the redesigns ended up being high-effort, low-value activities. Let’s stop this. Redesigns should only significantly improve how users perform a daily habit.”
An employee asked why Yahoo is a “jack of all trades… masters of none :(” “We compete in the following major areas (and a few others) 1. Display ads 2. Search 3. Email 4. Mobile And we suck in each one of them The only other company that does all these is Google. Over the years they have invested intelligently and heavily in infrastructure and resources to do compete effectively in all the above. We haven’t. Why do think we can compete with them in all these areas with less. Shouldn’t we pick one or two of the above and do a good job with them?”
A “recent acqui-hire” complained about Yahoo “meta-work” and demotivation. “Recent acqui-hire with real technical chops, yet I spend a vast amount of time satisfying the needs of bureaucracy and unable to focus on making a real difference. The amount of time wasted on “metawork” is astounding (e.g. have posted graded goals but still required to send a summary of accomplishments for the qtr in an email to my manager). Focus is about removing distraction – not just the properties/platforms but also the process. Stop killing my will to care – let us do real work!”
One of the more interesting anonymous Q&As Mayer did with her employees during her first two years was in May 2014, when she actually answered questions directly on Yahoo’s internal network.
Her answers shaped what I think of her, Yahoo, and how I describe both in my book.
A Yahoo employee asked what’s plan B if Mayer’s plan for mobile fails. Mayer said there is none. Mayer answered: “On mobile, failure is not an option. Mobile is the future of our industry and the future of Yahoo. For us, mobile takes the things weíve always been good at — search, mail, news, finance, sports, etc. — and puts them into usersí pockets, making them truly daily habits. Our teams have launched a number of really beautiful products (Weather, News Digest, Flickr, to name just a few) that are driving engagements and user growth. As you know, we now have more than 430 million MAUs, which is a key part of attracting advertisers and ultimately revenue. We have seen some remarkable progress in our mobile business and we are confident about the future here. We feel confident in our progress, but if this strategy and these products donít take us where we need to, we will need to iterate and try again until we are successful.”
An employee asked: “What is the plan for increasing ad revenue?” Mayer answered: “Ultimately, increasing ad revenue is about two things: product innovation and relationship building. In terms of products, weíre focused on innovating our ad tech and we are seeing early and significant results. We invented a Stream Ads business a year ago that now has a run rate in the hundreds of millions of dollars. With Gemini, we are serving our own mobile search ads in North America for the very first time since 2010. Native Ads on Magazines have share rates that match content share rates on other verticals. The point is, our products are performing and now we need to bring them to scale. In terms of strengthening our relationships with key advertising partners across the industry, this is something that I take very seriously as CEO. Last week, I was in New York at Digital Newfronts meeting with advertisers, we were at CES and we will be at Cannes. Ned, Dawn, Rose, and their teams continue to make this a priority and I think weíre making great progress.”
An employee asked if Yahoos can work from home now. Mayer answered: “When we decided to remove working from home at Yahoo, it was really about one thing: collaboration. While Yahoos might be more productive working from their kitchens, weíre more collaborative meeting with other Yahoos in the micro-kitchen. When you look at the successes weíve had over the past year, so many of them have been driven by our ability to work together and move fast. We said as we made the work from home change, that it was the right thing for us for now and, in our view, it still is.”
An employee asked “What happened to investing in people?” An employee wrote: “Told to wait 2 years for promotion, then no opportunities available — what happened to investing in people? (310 votes)” Mayer responded: “Average promotion time in our industry varies by level but typically is 2-5 years. We felt that placing the average at 2 years allows for good growth opportunities. Please note that these are averages, so some individuals will move much faster than every 2 years and some slower. We are very committed to investing in people – it’s incredibly fundamental to what we need to do. Youíve probably heard Jackie and Sandy talk about bringing people to Yahoo to build their career — that is our goal and that is something that all of us believe and take seriously. The HR team continues to look at new and different ways to help Yahoos grow their careers and their impact on our business — that said, we recognise that we need to do more.”
I spent two years going through material like this and turning it into a fast-paced narrative about the fall of Yahoo and Marissa Mayer’s efforts to turn the company around. It was a lot of work, but worth it because I find it fascinating to get inside of companies. If all this fascinates you, you’re just like me — and you should read my book: “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!”
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