Dana Theus, President,
You have to have been living in a cave to miss the media frenzy that erupted after Yahoo! announced its new policy to bring telecommuters home to the office. Much of the noise came from the working-mom contingent upset at Marissa Mayer, the new mother recently appointed as the CEO in charge of bringing Yahoo! back to life. However, for leaders to learn the real lessons of this brouhaha, we have to look beneath the headlines.
While I don’t hold Mayer accountable for representing the interests of all working moms, it’s completely fair to hold her accountable for shaping Yahoo!’s corporate culture, which is what the move was intended to do. Yahoo!’s policy memo made an attempt to explain that ending telecommuting was balanced by other policies designed to give employees perks and organizational streamlining. However, the memo’s greatest irony – which really explains perhaps better than any other why this move might have been necessary – were the words blazing across the top of the leaked memo: “DO NOT FORWARD.”
Maybe the leak was the result of one or two sour-grapes employees, (the New York Times reports it was only aimed at 200 employees) but it still speaks to a culture in need of tightening up.
Yahoo! has been pretty tight lipped about the memo, saying only that the new policy isn’t an industry referendum on work-at-home policies , but sifting through the media explosion fallout, it’s clear that this is just one of many moves Mayer is putting in place to bring a more focused corporate culture to Yahoo! That said it seems pretty ham fisted. Looking at the work-at-home memo event from a corporate culture design point of view, here are some insights that other companies may want to emulate – or not.
3 Things Yahoo! Is Doing Right
- Creating a comprehensive plan: This policy is not an isolated event. Mayer has been making changes for months designed to make Yahoo! a more pleasant place to work and bringing good vibes back.
- Taking a stand. One reason corporate culture is too often unintentional is that leaders are afraid of upsetting people. In designing any culture change you want your most valuable employees to be happy, motivated and looking forward to coming to work every day. When you take a stand that motivates those employees, it’s going to demotivate others who like the way things are. Putting a stake in the ground – done well – accomplishes exactly this. Only Yahoo! will know if this move does the trick, but early signs say maybe it has, since some employees seem to be defending the move.
- Communicating privately before you communicate publicly. According to the memo, “If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps.” This is the right thing to do. Culture-creation-by-email is a bad idea. Ultimately the way the culture you are designing is maintained and evolved is by human interaction. If a corporate culture were a physical structure, the employees are the reinforcing infrastructure in between the foundation (the leadership behaviors) and the facades (facilities, brand imagery, media etc.) So creating your culture person-to-person builds strength into the culture from the beginning of a redesign effort.
3 Things Yahoo! Is Doing Wrong (Maybe)
- Not showing sensitivity for people who may get stuck in the middle: If this policy was only aimed at 200 people, or even if it wasn’t, clearly it could mean a major change for some people who’ve built a life around the old policy – a life that affect many others in their personal and family network. The reason the memo made such a media firestorm was because it was completely unqualified and made no mention of these complications.
- Not using culture design memos to reinforce values. The memo did speak of the values of communication and collaboration, but by not addressing the major values behind many work-at-home policies – respect for employees as whole people and creativity – Yahoo! missed an opportunity to show how it is going to be addressing such values in the future. This left them open for criticism from employees and, as we’ve seen, everyone else including prospective employees. Perhaps the company doesn’t value these things, in which case, maybe the memo was just fine, and the criticism deserved.
- Not using culture design initiatives to connect your internal and external brands. One of the reasons many people outside the halls of Yahoo! were shocked by the memo is because the broader market associates Silicon Valley company brands with innovative employee policies like working at coffee shops. They see the Yahoo! move as out-of-step with what a real cutting-edge tech company would do. While I don’t think this tempest in the media teapot is going to damage Yahoo!’s long-term brand any more than its struggling stock price, Yahoo!’s public relations team missed a golden opportunity to show how its culture design effort is related to, and underpins, its brand and market strategy. Tying your internal and external brand strategies, including making efforts to make them consistent to the point that leaks like this actually turn into media opportunities, is an innovative strategy all by itself. Perhaps Yahoo! is too busy trying to get its internal house in order to think much about opportunities like this, but for the rest of us, it’s a good case study of what might have been.
I say “maybe” these issues were mistakes and lost opportunities for Yahoo! because the most important parts of culture change will only visible inside Yahoo!, to be felt by the people who work there. That’s where real culture change takes place and that’s where the ultimate measure of success will be judged.
This post originally appeared on Smartblog on Leadership (@SBLeaders).