Management and Leadership Lesson From Yahoo

Here’s an excerpt from a NY Times article today about Yahoo shutting down their online magazines:

The editors of the magazines were constantly fighting with the people who ran Yahoo’s home page to get prominent display for their work. The home page editors, relying on reader data and computer algorithms, preferred to run articles licensed by Yahoo from other sites because they drew more traffic.

Recall that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had proclaimed these online magazines a major focus and key to Yahoo’s turnaround.

So….

  • She’s canning the magazines because they didn’t draw enough traffic.
  • The home page refused to direct traffic to them because they got more “eyeballs” from other content.

Cognitive dissonance, corporate style. If she left the two teams to “fight it out,” she abdicated, or didn’t think through her positions, it seems to me. If the home-page team refused, even passive-aggressive style, she didn’t do her job.

Of course, it’s possible the story isn’t true as written. That wouldn’t be a first, either.

What’s the Lesson?

The leadership lesson to take away is this:

If you want something to happen, you have to create the world in which it can happen successfully. Not only must you remove roadblocks, you must make double-sure you don’t accidentally put some in in the way.

The recipes are simple to explicate, hard to pull off.

Traditional Manager-Leaders

  1. Make the goal clear to everyone who touches on the problem, not just the team you’re tasking with a job.
  2. Make sure that you don’t give people competing agendas. Competition is great in the marketplace, but a dangerously multi-edged sword internally.
  3. Measure everyone (not just one team) on the success of the initiative.

Visionary Leaders

  1. Set a clear goal for the organization as a whole, and be vigilant about individual or team goals that conflict.

In this case, if Yahoo (Mayer) really believed in the magazines, then they needed to make that clear to everyone, and not allow the home-page team to pursue a goal in conflict with that direction.

It’s really, really hard to keep your head “out of the boat” (i.e., looking around at the big picture) as a leader, keep your eyes – and everyone else’s – focused on the large, difficult, sometimes ambiguous goals. It’s incredibly easy to get caught in helping your team reach day-to-day objectives, and not realize you’re doing so to the detriment of the project or organization as a whole. Or worse, allowing your teams to remain in conflict because you’re telling them how, not what, or trying to solve team-level issues rather than whole-picture issues.

No matter which kind of leader you are – and both kinds can work – you need to maintain clarity and focus on the big picture.

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