All Articles Leadership Careers Why Marissa Mayer is always pushing past her comfort zone

Why Marissa Mayer is always pushing past her comfort zone

18 min read


The following is an excerpt from “Fortune Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career,” (September 2013, Time Home Entertainment), by Daniel Roberts and other Fortune contributors, which focuses on 40 business leaders under 40. This excerpt was written by Patricia Sellers.

Marissa Mayer had just arrived home from a whirlwind business trip to Asia in June 2012 when opportunity came her way. It arrived via a phone call from Michael Wolf, a media consultant who had recently joined the Yahoo board of directors. Mayer at the time was a Google vice president in charge of local and location services, including Google Maps and Google Earth. The Yahoo director wanted to invite Mayer to dinner to talk about the prospect of her joining the company as its new CEO.

For Mayer, that idea was crazy for a host of reasons.

First of all, the once-hot Internet pioneer was in dire condition. While Yahoo did boast a vast user base of 700 million, the 18-year-old company had failed to produce must-use products in search, social, and mobile technologies to keep pace with Google and Facebook. Sales were flat. The workforce was shrinking. The leadership was in perpetual turnover — the Yahoo board was searching for its fifth CEO in five years. And whoever accepted the job would have a slim chance of satisfying shareholders livid over a $100 billion decline in Yahoo’s stock market value.

There was also the matter of Mayer’s fitness for the job. Her “comfort zone,” as she has told Fortune, was computer programming, which was her course of study at Stanford. She arrived at Google in 1999 straight out of grad school as its first female engineer. For five years she headed search products and “user experience” — shaping the way people navigate the Internet while protecting the elegant simplicity of Google’s websites. Managing, though, did not come easily or naturally to her.

Even as a vice president in charge of more than 1,000 employees, she did not oversee a P&L. She had no background in finance. And other than being recently brought on to the board of Wal-Mart (she had just attended her first board meeting), she was hardly up on what it took to run a big public company — much less one in desperate need of a turnaround.

And finally, there was Mayer’s little secret, unknown to anyone except her family and a few close friends: She was five months pregnant with her first child.

Most people would consider all those factors and issue a quick “no thanks” to an invitation to attempt a turnaround at Yahoo. But Marissa Mayer did the opposite. On July 16, 2012 — after she told the board of her pregnancy — Yahoo named Mayer its new chief executive. A few hours later she disclosed to Fortune exclusively, “I’m pregnant!” At 37, Mayer became the youngest chief executive of a Fortune 500 company and the first person ever to move into the top job with a baby on the way.

“Do things that you’re not quite ready to do,” Mayer says, summing up the career philosophy that led her to take the top job at Yahoo. She believes that to succeed, you should “get in over your head” — and carefully manage your ambition. “Always surround yourself with the smartest people,” she advises.

You might say that Mayer (pronounced MY-er) has been getting in over her head since she was a young girl in Wausau, Wis.  She grew up with a civil-engineer dad who designed water-treatment plants — and who probably gave Mayer her tech DNA. Her mother, who taught art to kids inside the Mayer home, instilled in Marissa a design aesthetic, a passion for fashion, and a willingness to try the unfamiliar. Every day of the week, Margaret Mayer took Marissa to a different activity or lesson — swimming, skating, ballet, piano lessons, cake decorating. (Marissa’s brother, Mason, four years younger, had a single passion: hockey.)

So Mayer was surrounded by smart people from early on — teachers, coaches, experts in many different fields — who no doubt set her on a path to be an all-round overachiever. In high school she was captain of the debate team and also captain of the pompom squad, which performed energetic dance numbers at halftime during football and basketball games.

Abigail Garvey Wilson was Mayer’s best friend during childhood and remains her closest friend today. When they were teenagers, Wilson recalls, Mayer was a hard-driving manager in the making. “She scheduled practices lasting hours to make sure everyone was synchronized,” Wilson says. Mayer wasn’t in the clique that the other girls on the squad were part of, but she won those girls over in three ways. “First, sheer talent. Marissa could choreograph a great routine,” Wilson says. “Second, hard work. And third, fairness. With Marissa in charge, the best dancers made the team.”

Even back then, Mayer was analytical, methodical, and, as she describes herself, “matrix-driven.” When she got into every college she applied to — Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Duke, and six others — and needed to decide where to go, she created a spreadsheet that included voluminous data, including student-teacher ratios, median SAT scores, and measures of campus life. She chose Stanford and arrived intending to study to become a pediatric neurosurgeon. (Mayer has always adored babies and been fascinated by the human brain.) But she changed her major to symbolic systems — “a major I couldn’t really describe myself, let alone to my father.”

SymSys, as its known by its practitioners, is an ambitious course of study that includes psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and computer science. SymSys students learn how people reason and figure out how to endow computers with humanlike behavior.

Hosain Rahman, who was in Mayer’s freshman dorm at Stanford, remembers her as different from most of the other brainiacs they hung out with. “We were all intense students,” says Rahman, who is now CEO of mobile-device maker Jawbone. “But Marissa stood out because she had unusual balance and a deep understanding of people and how to relate to them.”

Mayer had a willingness — or even a willfulness — to do things before she was ready. During a summer break from Stanford, she worked in Switzerland and had “an aha! moment” while shopping for food, of all things. “The first day, I went to the grocery store and got in trouble because, it turns out, you buy produce in Europe completely differently [than in America],” Mayer explained at a Fortune Most Powerful Women event in Palo Alto in 2010. She simply wanted to buy grapes (a fruit she so loved as a kid that her family nicknamed her “the Grape Ape”), but she couldn’t master the process of weighing the fruit and printing the price sticker.

“This woman just started yelling at me in German,” Mayer recalled. “I remember going back to my apartment and just being like, ‘What was I thinking? I don’t speak the language. I can’t even buy produce here.'” The moment of discomfort was hardly traumatic, but it made her realize, “When you do something you’re not ready to do, that’s when you push yourself and you grow. It’s when you sort of move through that moment of discomfort of ‘Wow, what have I gotten myself into this time?'”

Mayer felt some of that same sort of discomfort in 1999 when she interviewed for a job with Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who had just launched their company. As they sat at a Ping-Pong table in a makeshift office in Palo Alto, she recalls, “Sergey drilled me [about data analysis techniques]. Larry said almost nothing, to the point that I almost asked him, ‘Do you speak?’ ” (Mayer later dated Page before they married other people.)

As she often does when weighing life-altering decisions, Mayer drew up a spreadsheet to assess her 14 job offers from such organizations as Oracle, Toyota, Carnegie Mellon, and McKinsey, in addition to Google. “I gave these guys a 2% chance,” she recalls thinking about the Google founders. But she knew that Brin and Page were brilliant. She believed she could trust them. And she loved their crazy-ambitious mission to organize the world’s information. Her choice came down to McKinsey vs. Google. She said to herself, “I could give advice to Fortune 500 companies, or I could help change the world.”

So Mayer stepped in as employee No. 20 and Google’s first woman engineer. During her first two years there, she worked 100 hours a week, happily programming. She proudly called herself “a geek,” a badge of Silicon Valley cred she still embraces. But two years after joining Google, moving into management meant giving up programming day to day. “It was hard because it took me out of my comfort zone,” she says. She struggled to become a good manager.

“Her weakness was an unwillingness to delegate,” explains Craig Silverstein, who worked with Mayer for over decade. Mayer was sometimes curt and controlling — a style that Silverstein, who is now developing software at Khan Academy, attributes to her super-human stamina on very little sleep. “When you have four or five more hours in the day than most people do, you don’t learn to delegate, because you don’t need to,” he says.

But as her product-management organization grew, Mayer grew as well. To succeed, she had to delegate. She realized that she had to develop people beneath her. In fact, she developed people in much more aggressive and sophisticated ways than most other Google managers.

Mayer was probably channeling Margaret Mayer, her mom, in 2002 when she started the APM — associate product manager — program at Google. Her idea behind this leadership-development program was to show entry-level, high-potential engineers that they could do anything and to help them develop the skills they needed to move into management. She personally selected each class of APMs, gave them tough assignments, and arranged face time with Google’s senior leaders. At the end of the APM program each year, Mayer took the class on a weeklong trip abroad to meet a wide range of international employees and customers. Jess Lee remembers her nonstop week in Tokyo, Bangalore, and Zurich in 2004 with Mayer and 11 fellow APM grads. “The philosophy was to force us to operate at a higher level,” recalls Lee, who is now CEO of fashion startup Polyvore.

As Mayer pushed her employees at Google to stretch and operate at a higher level, she stretched herself as well. “She goes beyond managing people to investing in people on a personal level,” notes Tom Stocky, another former Google APM. “That causes everyone on her team to work harder.” Stocky, now a director of product management at Facebook, recalls Mayer once telling him how she viewed a career: “Most people think of a career trajectory as a sloping line. Really, it’s a step function.” Mayer told Stocky, “When you’re ready to take the next step or take on more responsibility, you should start doing your job at the next level.” If you do that, she added, “the promotion will come naturally.”

Actually, the promotion did not come naturally for Mayer. In 2010, Page, who had succeeded Eric Schmidt as CEO, realigned Google’s senior team and moved Mayer from search products and user experience to be in charge of local, maps, and location services. For Mayer, it was a lateral move that some deemed a step down because it distanced her from Google’s important search business. Page also moved Mayer, along with some other high-level Google managers, off the company’s central operating committee.

Mayer responded by embracing her new role and showing resilience. She set about a plan to strengthen her new unit by engineering an acquisition of Zagat, the crowdsourced purveyor of restaurant guides. The story of the Zagat purchase is illustrative of her spirited brand of leadership. Mayer met Tim and Nina Zagat, the founders of the eponymous guides, by happenstance when they popped up at two conferences where she was speaking and sat before her in the front row. Tim walked up to Mayer, handed her his business card, and gruffly said, “Welcome to local.” The next time he appeared, he invited her to join his wine club. “I think that the Zagats are conference-stalking me,” Mayer thought to herself; she took control of the flirtation by asking Nina Zagat to lunch.

Mayer was told by her Google colleagues to refrain from acting eager to make a deal. Google M&A executive Neeraj Arora instructed her, “Don’t say the ‘acquisition’ word.” On the day they dined at New York City’s Jean-Georges (Nina’s pricey suggestion) and continued their conversation at Zagat’s Columbus Circle offices, Mayer couldn’t help herself. She blurted, “Well, we’re here to talk to you, maybe, possibly, about an … acquisition.”

Her directness worked. The Zagats agreed to talk exclusively to Google. As the negotiations entered the final stage, Mayer and her team took two redeye flights across the U.S. in four days. “Nina said, ‘That was our litmus test,’ ” recalls Mayer, who learned the value of in-person negotiation. “There are times when you just have to show up.”

And so, when Jim Citrin of executive-search giant Spencer Stuart called Mayer in June 2012 to say that Yahoo director Michael Wolf wanted to meet her, she decided she had to show up.

Their first meeting lasted more than four hours, over dinner, at Wolf’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Wolf, a former partner at McKinsey & Co. and ex-president of MTV, believed that Yahoo’s best chance of a turnaround would come with a product specialist at the helm; the evidence that product people, rather than specialists in finance or sales, make the best CEOs of tech companies was apparent from Google and Facebook and Twitter and across Silicon Valley. Mayer bought into that notion and believed that Yahoo’s key products — its homepage, search, finance, and e-mail — were the very products she knew how to grow: She had done it at Google.

Mayer also believed that Yahoo’s core problem was its talent drain — and she had not only a network to tap but also the geek cred to lure great engineers to help make Yahoo innovative again. She recognized that taking the job would be a huge risk for her career — it was beyond anything she had ever done, and Yahoo might continue to decline — but the opportunity for a big success was just as large.

Wolf knew as soon as he met Mayer that she was the one to hire. “Here’s someone who engendered a tremendous amount of loyalty,” says Wolf. “People want to work for her.”

In this case, Mayer’s decision-making was too complicated for her usual spreadsheet analysis. There was the matter of her pregnancy. She ditched her dream of taking six months off from work to savor first-time motherhood. When she told Wolf that she was due to have a child in early October, he was unfazed — and in fact did not inform his fellow directors. “I thought it shouldn’t get in the way,” Wolf says about Mayer’s pregnancy. The day before Yahoo announced her appointment as CEO, Mayer called each of the Yahoo directors individually to disclose her unique circumstance. None, Mayer says, resisted the idea of hiring a pregnant CEO. “They showed their evolved thinking,” she says.

Mayer did another critical thing before she accepted the Yahoo job. She insisted on meeting David Filo, who had co-founded Yahoo with Jerry Yang in 1994 and still works at the company. Filo, who owns 6% of Yahoo and is its largest shareholder, had been sidelined for years and was disgusted by the parade of failed CEOs. Per Mayer’s request, Wolf called Filo late Sunday afternoon, told him that the board was going to appoint Mayer CEO, and asked whether he could meet her for a late dinner that night. Filo informed Wolf that Mayer was a neighbor in Palo Alto—a neighbor he had never met, so at 8:30 p.m. Filo walked over to Mayer’s house. Wolf met them there, and Mayer’s husband, Zack Bogue, went out to pick up pizza. Filo and Mayer talked about what they thought Yahoo could become and how to get there.

The next day, Monday, Yahoo named Mayer its new CEO. Tuesday morning she reported to Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. Filo greeted her on a purple carpet and escorted her to her office. A month later Mayer changed the lines of reporting so that Filo, who oversees technical operations and holds the job title Chief Yahoo, reports directly to her. The Yahoo co-founder started attending board meetings and became one of Mayer’s staunch supporters.

Most CEOs are in over their heads. The difference is that they don’t know it. You get the sense that Mayer, maybe because of her age or maybe because of the magnitude of her assignment, fully does. Which may be why she has taken to her new job in her own unique way.

More than many CEOs, she has eagerly tapped a network of experts for advice. To help her understand finance issues, Mayer has leaned on Dan Loeb, an activist investor who is one of Yahoo’s largest outside shareholders. Another board member, American Express chief marketing officer John Hayes, has helped Mayer understand Yahoo’s marketing challenges. Meanwhile, she has used Wolf as a general sounding board. Wolf and Loeb left the board in July 2013.

Within eight months of becoming chief, Mayer revamped the team at the top, bringing in new chiefs of operations, finance, marketing, and business development. She made several small acquisitions to capture premier tech talent — and one big acquisition: Tumblr. For $1.1 billion, Mayer bought a blogging platform with just $13 million in revenue and zero profits, but also a new, younger audience and a precocious 26-year-old founder-programmer whom she is keeping at Tumblr’s helm. Transforming the talent at Yahoo is as crucial, Mayer believes, as fixing the culture. She says she wants to make Yahoo “the absolute best place to work.” In this pursuit, she has done a lot more than hand out free food and free smartphones. Her so-called PB&J program, designed to remove distractions and improve productivity, entails employees logging in to an internal website and voting on one another’s ideas. The site ranks the ideas by popularity; management implements the best ones. PB&J is Google-like and quintessentially Mayer — data-driven, democratic, and fun.

While Mayer says she is an introvert, she works hard to mix with employees (“Yahoos”) inside the organization. At her FYI all-hands gatherings every Friday, she answers any and all questions and usually sticks around until most employees have gone. But in pursuit of a culture of accountability, she also demands more of employees than previous CEOs ever have. She has implemented more detailed and frequent performance reviews, quarterly goal setting for all employees, and new HR policies — extended maternity leave but also a much-discussed policy against working at home. Mayer’s requirement that employees work at a Yahoo office was at first poorly communicated and prompted a firestorm of criticism. But as facts came out — for instance, Mayer implemented the policy to promote collaboration, she allows exceptions, and other companies like Best Buy have adopted similar rules — the furor began to die down.

Mayer is proving to be a tougher CEO than most people expected and very different from the other Fortune Most Powerful Woman in Silicon Valley to whom she is often compared: Sheryl Sandberg. While Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, sparked a global conversation about women and work by writing a No. 1 bestseller, “Lean In,” and launching a self-proclaimed “feminist” movement, Mayer wants to be deemed neither a feminist nor a role model. She is singularly focused on her task at hand: turning around Yahoo. Well, maybe not entirely so. In her first interview after taking the CEO job, Mayer told Fortune that she “ruthlessly” prioritizes: “For me, it’s God, family, and Yahoo— — in that order.” The mantra is a reference to her Wisconsin roots and an homage to Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.

As for the mom-CEO challenge, she is tackling that her own way. Eight days after she delivered her baby, Macallister Bogue, Mayer returned to Yahoo headquarters and set up a small nursery adjoining her corner office. People have criticized her for an arrangement that other working moms can only dream about. The criticism will rage on. But Mayer is doing exactly what the board asked of her — do whatever she can, within reason, to turn around Yahoo. Given a 75% increase in the company’s stock price during her first year as CEO, you have to hand it to her: Marissa Mayer takes risks that could put her in over her head, but she manages to stay above water.