Newsflash: Marissa Mayer isn't a dictator. She runs one company. Shut up and let her

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 4, 2013

From The News Desk

Seriously, how is this debate about where Yahoo employees should work still going on?

What is it about Marissa Mayer? Every decree she makes about her life, her baby, or her company becomes a Rorshach Test through which people must violently agree or disagree, as if any of it affects them. There are plenty of companies where people don't work from home. And yet everyone from Michael Bloomberg to Richard Branson don't feel the need to insist whether that's right or wrong for weeks on end.

We haven't written much about it, because we don't work at Yahoo and don't particularly care. But it's gotten to where the phenomenon around this story has become more interesting than the story itself.

I wrote before about the similarly bizarre phenomenon around Mayer's maternity leave -- where women seemed to think her personal decision meant they couldn't take their own maternity leaves. Never mind the legal protections around maternity leave -- which are particularly rabid in California -- why does it matter what Mayer does? She has a completely different job and support structure around her, and never once has she said anything to suggest this is what all women everywhere should do. Similarly, why do people take it so personally if she wants her team to work from the office or not?

Certainly, she has a high profile job, but so do many other people. It's lazy to say it's just a woman thing. When Arianna Huffington demanded that AOL stringers start working in the office, it caused a minor hubbub but nothing that lasted weeks with this level of heavy hitters weighing in. They've been discussing Mayer's policy on shock-jock morning radio shows in San Francisco for Christ's sake.

As far as I can tell, this is a woman who is making very specific decisions about specific situations. She is heads down focused on her family and the gargantuan task of rebuilding Yahoo. She's not trying to be the spokesperson for all work/life issues in the world. And yet people keep turning her into that. People are ralling for or against "WHAT WOULD MARISSA DO?" while she's simply trying to do her job with as little press or attention as possible.

Imagine if a debate went up on the blogosphere if you decided to take vacation or chose to have a burrito for lunch over Chinese food. Doesn't she have enough pressure with the thankless job she's already signed up for without everyone pretending she's making a statement about their own lives?

The debate about working from home seems simple to me. Different companies require different cultures. As I wrote last week, working from home helps me greatly as a mom/CEO. Most of my staff works at home, which works well, because we have a small, geographically distributed team and are a startup that doesn't want to waste a lot of money on office space. But it also works because journalism is a job where you can pretty much see in black and white everyday who is pulling their weight and who isn't. Clearly I'm not an anti-work-at-home Nazi.

That said, Mayer's decision was a no-brainer in rescuing Yahoo, and I think Huffington's was too. Were I CEO of Yahoo or running editorial at AOL, I would have done it on day one. That's not hypocritical or anti-working mom of me. Yahoo and AOL are in a very different situations. Yahoo in particular is a company with a bloated staff that many experts have said for the better part of the last five years needs drastic cuts to survive -- the level of cuts that Mayer has so far been unwilling to make.

That's in part because it's easier said than done. Actually corralling these thousands of workers, making them show up everyday and seeing who is performing and who isn't, seems a logical first step towards getting management's arms around the problem.

Furthermore, it's a company of fiefdoms and constant reorgs and revolving CEOs and management teams and even a revolving board. There are many hardworking people at Yahoo, but there are many people who have taken advantage of a system where they report to a new person seemingly every year or even every quarter.

Mayer isn't being outdated in her thinking as Branson suggests. (When it comes to technology, by the way, I'm going to vote with one of the core people behind Google over Branson.) She's trying to bring accountability to a company that hasn't had much for the last few years. Yahoo is a very specific company with a specific set of challenges. Why is this a hard concept for otherwise intelligent people to grasp?

Here's a new quiz for the next time Mayer announces something you disagree with: Do you work at Yahoo? If the answer is yes, and you hate it enough, quit. If the answer is no, be glad. Because -- as she'd likely be the first to say -- she's really only the boss of Yahoo.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman, original photo courtesy wikimedia]