What makes a leader?

Ever since Marissa Mayer took over as CEO of Yahoo, the company’s been making a lot of headlines. As one of Google’s earliest employees and its first female engineer, the Stanford Master of Computer Science graduate held key roles in the search, user experience, and local services teams.

When the 37-year-old was named CEO of Yahoo last July, she was tasked with the mammoth challenge of steering a sinking Silicon Valley ship. The stock prices say that Yahoo had been a sinking ship for a while now, ever since it failed to keep up with Google in the search business and missed out on the social networking boom that Facebook pioneered.

Mayer’s biggest challenges were to restore Yahoo’s image with advertisers (online advertising has always been its predominant business) and to reinvigorate its exhausted workforce (which had suffered many blows from layoffs and a dipping stock price)—all of which she tackled head-on with much enthusiasm.

This video summarises what she’s done since taking over:

So can these achievements teach budding business leaders in Singapore?

1. Get personally invested

Many people treat work as…well, just work. It’s the place we have to go to in order to make money that’ll allow us to do what we really want to do. Nothing wrong with that! After all, people need a personal life, right?

But there’s also nothing wrong with getting invested and bringing personal touch, charm, enthusiasm, and positivity into what you do. Previously tagged as Google’s most glamorous employee, Mayer has appeared in Vogue and Glamour magazines and at exclusive Chanel parties in classy Chanel dresses. “Designing software and products isn’t all that different from the design of clothes,” she was quoted as saying in a New York Times article in August on techies and fashion.

This goes to show, getting ideas or values from your personal passions and applying them to business can go a long way!

2. Don’t be afraid to rethink your methods

Realising that what you’ve been doing for years may not be yielding the results you expected isn’t a fault of character. It’s proof that you’re smart enough to reflect on your work and that you put success above ego.

The biggest mistake aspiring business leaders make is to think that no one has their vision and that one day they’ll show everyone that their counter-intuitive approach is right. That may be true in very rare cases, but most of the time it leads to disastrous business decisions.

Mayer addressed Yahoo’s mission to “create deeply personal digital experiences by deciding to modernise Yahoo websites and update them for mobile devices, acknowledging that the once pioneering internet company had failed to jump on the whole smartphone bandwagon at the right moment.

3. Don’t back down from tough but necessary choices

It’s natural to want people to like and appreciate us. Nobody wants to be the evil boss, right? But sometimes tough decisions must be made and everyone is turning to you for the next step to take. Do you back down and hope everything goes well, or do you take matters into your own hands and deal with the responsibility of making tough choices?

Of course, only history can tell if the choices made are right or wrong, but the essential point is that it takes a special kind of leader to make them in the first place.

As soon as she took over, Mayer replaced the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer (among others) and trimmed staff count down from 13,700 to 12,000 the previous year (more than 12%!). She also sold the company’s share in China’s Alibaba Group and indicated that Yahoo would be withdrawing from international businesses that had failed to grow (South Korea, for instance).

In one of the company’s most controversial moves, she also banned working from home, a perk she felt didn’t really bring much value to employees’ work-life balance. Avid supporters of workplace flexibility and advocates of women’s rights also criticised her for taking only two weeks of maternity leave, a move they said could set undesirable precedents for other women in corporate America.

4. If you can’t beat them, join them

No matter how brilliant you may be or how original you think you are there’s always someone out there who’s devoted their life to excel at something. Let’s face it, we can’t all be ultra-talented geniuses in everything we do, but we can have the vision to pinpoint outstanding individuals and make them part of our team.

Mayer has made a few new mobile acquisitions, including buying over the teen-founded mobile news delivery app Summly. The app was promptly shut down and the Summly team integrated into Yahoo’s own. Other small tech companies were also bought in “the company’s efforts to build world-class technology and engineering teams in mobile and personalisation”. Yahoo has also bought Tumblr to be independently operated, has (finally) updated Flickr, and is said to also be eyeing Hulu.

So how can all of these tips apply to Singapore leaders?

As Marissa Mayer shows us, a certain amount of boldness and risk-taking is necessary to run a flexible and innovative business environment. Yet the very qualities that make us a great place for foreign companies (efficient bureaucracy, stable institutions, and steady economy) may negatively affect our home-grown leaders’ ability to see beyond play-it-safe strategies.

Let’s see it start with valuing every worker. Respecting every job. And making businesses cheaper, better and faster.

It’s no secret that we’re highly ranked in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business study. But are such laudable outcomes actually hindering our capacity to change, adapt, or innovate?

Where is Singapore’s place in a fast-changing and tech-driven world?

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Samantha Wong

I'm a hobby writer!

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