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What Was She Thinking?

Not long ago, Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, told her employees that starting in June, everyone will need to work from the office—no more telecommuting. Since that announcement, I’ve lost count of the articles and blogs that have weighed in on this highly visible policy shift. This announcement was a particular lightning rod since many women, who are often the beneficiaries of creative work arrangements, saw Mayer as a role model. After all, when she took the job, she was in her third trimester of pregnancy.

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While I’ve certainly thought about whether this change is for good or ill—for Yahoo, for women, for workers, for business—I’ve also found myself wondering what led Mayer to make this change. What was she thinking?

Mayer comes from Google, a hugely successful company where she experienced her own huge success. Google’s culture—like Apple’s, but unlike many others in Silicon Valley—emphasizes the importance of being physically present with your colleagues. Google views face-to-face meeting as critical to innovation, serendipitous encounters in the hallway as a stimulus for creativity.

Success is a powerful motivator for repetition. Perhaps what Mayer is thinking is as simple as, “it works at Google, it will work at Yahoo”. But Yahoo isn’t Google and it already has its own culture, including one that calls its employees “Yahoos”. It also has had a culture that embraced flexible scheduling, telecommuting and other inventive ways to attract and retain engaged employees. Whether excising such a key part of the Yahoo culture and grafting the Google culture onto it will work remains to be seen. Only time will tell if such a dramatic change will generate the creativity Yahoo seeks or cause the flight of key employees seeking a more flexible environment. Maybe it was the right move. Maybe not.

Mayer must turn around a company in crisis, a challenge that requires bold steps. Drawing on the culture she knew at Google is a natural, perhaps reflexive move. That got me thinking about the power of culture, how it affects the organizations where we work, but also how it affects us personally, how a strong culture can rub off on us for many years. Perhaps the cultures that have made us feel most successful are the ones that we are most likely to try to carry with us to new workplaces. But when you come into the new organization at the top, those inevitable borrowings can become dangerously disruptive. The old culture works because the multiple parts that comprise it work harmoniously. Importing one part, especially a part as fraught as workplace redefinition, may turn out to be a risky move.

When a leader enters a new organization the challenge is to remain mindful about culture; to be reflective rather than reflexive; to stand there and look before doing anything to change it; to take time to be affected by it before tossing away something others regard as precious. This is especially difficult when faced with the demands for rapid action and the expectations of improved results. New leaders are under tremendous pressure to act but they can’t make the assumption that just because it worked in another place, it will work here. The world is filled with companies that have imported terrific ideas from a lot of different places and stuck them together but they don’t work because they’re not coherent. Culture requires coherence, so while it may be helpful to borrow practices from other organizations, if they don’t match the overall tone of the organization, they won’t do what you want them to.

What steps can a new leader take to make it less likely that the changes will be incoherent?

  • Take enough time to understand the culture you’re entering. What are the assumptions, values, mores and norms that are implicit in the way things get done?
  • Listen to key advisors. Find people who will tell you the truth and seek their points of view.
  • Consider the indirect effects of the changes you’re considering. Will it impact incentive plans, job descriptions, reporting relationships, morale, creativity?

A leader must act. The challenge is to act boldly… and wisely.

This Article was originally published in enterprising Women


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Margaretta Noonan
Margaretta Noonanhttp://www.ngage.works
While still a senior executive at a global company, Margaretta Noonan started asking herself, “Am I All There?” After several years of exploring the topic of employee engagement – her own included; Margaretta co-founded ngage, a technology-enabled solution that creates a continuous connection between employees and managers about the issues that are critical to organizational success;. Margaretta spent 30 years in Human Resources and senior leadership with global Fortune 500 companies in the retail and professional services industries. Knowing that a company is only ever as strong as the talent inside it – in addition to ngage, Margaretta heads a woman-owned consulting business, noonanWorks (www.noonanworks.com), dedicated to working at the intersection of employee engagement / customer engagement and financial results.

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