Thanks, Yahoo! And Other Reflections on How It All Went Awry
As Yahoo! passes out of independent existence, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to reflect on all that I gained from my time there and share my perspective on how the leadership of Yahoo could have saved the company from faltering before things continued on a downward spiral that lasted nearly a decade.
While I’m frustrated to see the avoidable dismantling of this former internet titan, I remain proud to have been part of Yahoo and I’m enormously grateful for the incredible people I worked with during my two-and-a-half years there. I’ve had the privilege to work with many of you again during the past few years; people like Anne Toth of Slack, Jen Dulski of Change.org, Dan Finnigan of Jobvite, and Ali Diab of Collective Health. Thank you, Yahoo, for bringing us all together — it was truly a magical time!
I’m also grateful for all I learned from my experience at Yahoo. It certainly wasn’t an easy time for me and my tenure leading Games was a mixed bag. But as a result of the challenges I faced, I found myself working with an executive coach for the first time, an experience that allowed me to analyze more deeply and effectively my assumptions, leadership strengths and weaknesses that were standing in the way of my success and those I managed. The process was so impactful and powerful that I pivoted in my career and now work as a coach myself, serving and supporting many great leaders and businesses. Thanks to all of you who made that possible: Cheryl Van, Therese Lenk, Jennifer Trzepacz and others.
The other big learning opportunity was a first-row seat to what I think of as the beginning of the end of Yahoo. I’m hardly the first to assert that Yahoo lost its soul somewhere along the way. But as I watched it become bloated and distracted from its core business that strayed far from Jerry and Dave’s original offering, I saw this as a symptom of the leadership lacking clarity around the purpose of Yahoo. After spending the past ten years as an executive coach and champion of building strong company cultures, I work closely with clients to ensure that they understand their essence, nurture their culture, and stay true to their purpose. I put clients through a deeply personal and rigorous process to understand what values led them to where they are, what they see as their unique offering to their customers, employees, and to themselves. Yahoo will become a textbook cautionary tale of what happens to companies when these pillars that support companies become weak and start to crumble. The good news for all of us is that this is completely preventable, but it takes work, commitment, and thoughtful leadership.
Being clear about the essence of the business and then hiring people and designing systems and structures in alignment with that in service of the company’s purpose is crucial. It isn’t surprising that Yahoo never took the time to really get clear given how the company was founded (a side project while Dave and Jerry were grad students) and how fast things were moving for years. But eventually it began to catch up to us and we started making decisions based only on a very broad range of opportunities rather than focusing on our unique place in the world.
This lack of clarity around essence caused even greater challenges to the company culture, and from there, to the business itself. The once collegial, quirky, purple company started feeling a lot less friendly and smart, a place where office politics began to trump innovation and accountability. This isn’t unique to business by a long shot, but it was painful for me to experience with Yahoo, and from conversations I have had over the years, painful to others as well.
So, thanks, Yahoo for setting me down a career path I love and feel privileged to do every time I meet with CEOs who have audacious goals and need to remain focused; visionaries who want to make a change in the world; young, wide-eyed and anxious entrepreneurs who want to ensure their company’s soul isn’t lost once they scale; exhausted HR professionals who meet the urgent daily demands of benefits and hiring while trying to nurture company culture; and enthusiastic employees who want to engage more deeply with a company they’ve helped to shape. There’s so much good in what Yahoo has done and we’re all better equipped to create world-enriching, special places to work that can thrive even through hyper-growth while never losing their soul. It is amazing work I get to do, and I have Yahoo to thank for setting me on this journey.