Marissa Mayer seems to be eroding one of her greatest achievements at Yahoo.
Before Mayer got to Yahoo in July 2012, employees hardly ever knew what was going on.
All would seem well, and then WHAM! — right before the annual Christmas party, there would be layoffs.
Re-orgs, changes in strategy, and executive departures all seemed to come out of the blue.
Ultimately, the best way for Yahoo employees to follow what was going on at the upper levels was to read reports from Kara Swisher, the Re/code editor-in-chief who was then at All Things D.
There’s a scene in my book, “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!” where Mayer figures out the root cause to this problem, and fixes it.
It was about two weeks into the job. Mayer had been spending a lot of time meeting with employees in Yahoo’s cafeteria, URLs.
At the end of almost every conversation, each employee would say: You know, no one from management ever talks to us.
Mayer would answer: Well. It’s hard for there ever to feel like there’s enough communication in a big company. I’ll try to do better, but it’s hard.
Then, during Mayer’s second week, she went to her corporate communications team and said she was ready to meet with the company now.
She asked, “When’s the weekly meeting?”
The answer was: “What weekly meeting?”
Mayer said, “When the executives talk to the employees and take their questions.”
For its entire history, Google had a meeting a like that every week, called TGIF.
The communications executive asked Mayer if she meant Yahoo’s quarterly all-hands. Mayer said no, not that’s not what she meant. The quarterly review was for the CFO to go over financials.
“I’m talking about the thing where we talk about how the company’s going, our strategy, feedback, questions.”
The comms exec said, right, that’s the quarterly all-hands.
Mayer said: “You mean the executives only talk to the company once a quarter?”
Mayer thought: Oh. So the employees say that nobody every talks to them is because nobody ever talks to them.
Mayer fixed that on July 27, 2012 — ten days after she joined the company. That Friday at 4 P.M., she hosted Yahoo’s first “FYI.”
FYIs were weekly meetings where all full-time employees were expected to attend. They began with a confidentiality reminder and went on with a series of announcements about products, new hires, and lots more. Finally, Mayer and the rest of her direct reports would come on stage together and take questions from the employees in the audience and from a forum on Yahoo’s internal network.
To her immense credit, Mayer and her staff took and answered some seriously hard questions at FYIs. She shared detailed information about layoff fears, acquisitions, negotiations with Microsoft, board meetings, private conversations with Apple, and sudden executive departures. A couple times, Mayer even took very hard, anonymously-submitted questions.
The idea was to make Yahoo a more open and transparent company, where employees would be able communicate with executives and hold them accountable. It would also take away an excuse from Yahoo employees: They would now have access to all the information they needed to succeed.
The goal was to improve morale and productivity at Yahoo through transparency. It worked.
Nearly all of the Yahoo employees I spoke to for my book said that within a year of Mayer’s arrival, morale at the company was higher than it had been in their memories. It showed. Yahoo was cranking out new products at a pace unseen in perhaps a decade or more.
But lately, it seems that Mayer has put her drive for radical, morale-improving transparency at Yahoo into reverse.
One of the issues Mayer handled best at FYI during her first months were reports and rumours that Yahoo would soon go through layoffs.
During an FYI on October 12, 2012, an employee asked if reports about layoffs were true. It’s one of the opening scenes from my book.
Mayer told the employee: “As of right now we’re not overall looking at layoffs. We’re looking at stabilizing the organisation. I can’t make a promise that there won’t be a change in that in the future, but as of right now there’s no active planning or conversations going on.”
All the Yahoos in the room — hundreds of them — started clapping.
Mayer said: “You should feel good about that. That should be a giant round of applause, a big sigh of relief from everybody.”
It was a great moment for Mayer because she broached a hard topic, shared some good news, and didn’t over-promise. She said that there was no “active planning” as of “right now.”
It was true.
It’s no longer true. Two-and-a-half years later, Yahoo actually is going through layoffs.
These cuts aren’t huge. Thousands of people aren’t being fired. But the number is in the hundreds, and the layoffs are on-going. One source told us it feels like the cuts come every week.
I’ve been laid off. It’s hard. It’s emotional. It’s sad. But layoffs are a part of business, and most Yahoo-watchers think Mayer should have cut the company’s headcount long ago.
The disappointing thing is that, from the outside, at least, it doesn’t seem like Mayer is being very transparent about them.
Every time I hear from a recently laid-off Yahoo employee, I ask: Did you have any sense it was coming? What is Mayer saying about them in FYIs?
Every time, I’ve got an answer like this one, from someone who was just laid off from Yahoo’s ad sales division.
“There wasn’t much the way of discussions or memos about layoffs. Many of us were left pretty much waiting and wondering what was going on. The FYIs seemed to have been kept vague on purpose with no real discussion around staffing needs.”
“Obviously,” says this person, “morale has been low.”
This person says that layoffs were especially surprising because Yahoo had just finished flying thousands of employees to San Francisco for a sales conference and because his group had a number of candidates progressive through the hiring pipeline.
Even after layoffs started happening in other groups, there was little warning that they would be happening in his.
There are worse stories about employees getting blindsided. For example, several Yahoo employees were let go after making serious preparations to move across the country or even the globe because they had first been told they could stay on at the company in other locations.
“The way these layoffs are being executed is really hurting morale,” says another source who was laid off.
“The public, as well as the rest of Yahoo employees deserve to know what’s going on. Executive are mostly mum on the issue and skirt around what’s happening.”
Yahoo says it has no comment on internal matters.
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