The Challenge of the “Turn Around” Leader


Recently, the leadership skills of Yahoo’s “turn-around” CEO, Marissa Mayer have come into question for addressing what she deemed to be a symptom of a palpable organizational ailment. I was not surprised at the reaction to her decision concerning flexible work — which could only be described as visceral and sensational. However, in my mind, a broader leadership question looms.

At LinkedIn, editor Isabelle Roughol has recounted developments in the evolution of both Yahoo and Groupon. Reading her post, I was struck with the importance of that pivotal “second chance” for ailing organizations — and the unique challenges faced by those leading that charge. Whether we are discussing Yahoo, Groupon, or J.C. Penney, one element remains brazenly obvious. Diagnosing organizational ills and affecting change is a difficult road to travel. Leaders cast in this “savior” role stand the chance of losing the good fight. It is a high stakes, high risk business.

In the case of Ms. Mayer, the proverbial “CEO alarm” was pulled the moment she revoked flexible work options. But, as the days passed and more information emerged, another aspect of the story became evident: the leadership challenges she faces in an organization that is actively seeking change. Bit by bit, information surfaced that was vital to this tale; including how Ms. Mayer determined she really had a serious problem and what motivated her course of action.

Personally, I don’t fault her for addressing what she believes to be a “waning” collaborative environment at Yahoo. ( I don’t view this is an assault on flexible work.) Gathering key talent together, in the hopes of igniting change, makes perfect sense. This action at the very least, begins to set behavioral expectations going forward for Yahoo. Critics abound — but only time will tell if this action contributes to needed change.

Yahoo’s leadership story (and others like it) seem to be at least partially rooted in our level of confidence in leadership — or more specifically, our skepticism. This seems counter intuitive on a very basic level, as a leap of faith is required when any organization needs to evolve. We need to view leadership as the dynamic and risky business that it truly is.

There has long been keen interest in specific leader attributes and how they impact success. However, this may have distracted us from the need for a broader, more integrated definition. Leadership is often a complicated, layered role, where culture and context must meld to formulate strategy. Prescribing the skills required for these leadership roles is an even more complicated task.

At the very least, a leader’s right to develop the best possible “script” for their highly specific situation seems critical. Marissa Mayer is faced with the task of assessing what Yahoo’s culture really needs at this moment to become healthy and productive. (I would hope that a modified flexible work policy will be hammered out as time passes.) Ultimately, a leader’s willingness to implement unpopular organizational decisions in these “second chance” situations, is required.

What do you think? Should we extend more confidence to our high-level leaders?

4 thoughts on “The Challenge of the “Turn Around” Leader

  1. I think that what happened with Marissa is a classic case of what happens amongst employees any time an organization tells them there is going to be change and doesn’t communicate the exact reasons why and how it ties in with company goals. People feel confused, naturally rebel against change and ultimately start outcries against the decision- until or unless it is properly addressed. The difference in this case however is that the outcries came from people in the leadership community and other critics, who made judgements without knowing the full story. Did she owe us as the general public an explanation to gain support and understanding ? No. Would it have been a wise PR decision to communicate this o the public and key leaders to have the support and avoid the negative press? Maybe.

    Ultimately, it’s company business and maybe that’s what people forgot to think about in their outcry.

    Marla, I agree that one has to respect people placed in the Leadership position and have some trust in their ability to make decisions based on the information at their disposal. As the general public or even as employees one does not always know the whole story. However the critical element here is the trust factor. If a leader does not have the trust of their employees, they will not be successful – trust usually comes with time. Many disgruntled employees may leave an organization in a time of leadership change, but usually the ones that stay are the ones who agree with the vision and the direction the company is moving in. It’s takes time to see the greater vision play out. The same may apply for the general publics opinion of Marissa. They can either manage it with effective PR or time will tell. Thank you for this article!


  2. Dear Dr. Marla, Many kind thanks for trying to make great efforts on positive attitudes regarding to CEO. I have no words to express my gratitude to you!


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