Who Won the CEO Sweepstakes — Yahoo or Google? Why Losing Superstars Makes You Stronger

Marissa Mayer

Yesterday Yahoo announced the appointment of Google’s Marissa Mayer to the post of CEO. She will be Yahoo’s fifth CEO in the last 12 months. Most folks are saying that Yahoo may have finally got it right this time. Here is a question most people aren’t asking: “Why did Marissa Mayer leave Google?”

It would seem that Marissa had it all at Google. Not only was she the number 20 employee at Google, but she is among the most well-respected executives in all of Silicon Valley. She turned Google’s search and mapping products into goldmines and some have suggested that she has done more at Google in the last few years than either of the founders.  If there ever was a superstar employee, Marissa would be it.

With the resignation of someone like Marissa, most companies would ask, “What could we have done to prevent losing her?” My answer is simple: Google could do nothing to prevent her departure; it was inevitable.

It wasn’t pay. Marissa does not need to work, she made out just fine when Google went public. She was a central figure in building a $200 billion powerhouse with arguably the strongest brand in the world (sorry Coca Cola, but soda is out and digital is in). It also wasn’t about prestige.  She has hosted fundraisers with the Obamas at her home and having joined the Walmart board in June she’s likely not having a hard time filling her dance card. No, it was all about the challenge.

People who achieve great heights look for the next mountain as soon as they reach the one they are climbing.  Giving Marissa a rotational assignment to build a new product line for Google wasn’t going to do much to motivate her. Even if she considered that some day she might move up to take the helm at Google, she had to realize that maintaining and growing a giant isn’t nearly as challenging and rewarding as revitalizing a fallen icon.

The hard truth is that Google had very little left to challenge Marissa. Which is why I was so impressed with Google’s response. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt told the press, “She’s a great product person, very innovative, and a real perfectionist who always wants the best for users. Yahoo has made a good choice and I am personally very excited to see another woman become CEO of a technology company.” Bravo, Eric! Instead of crying in his milk, he realized that even one of his top stars going to a (for now, nominal) competitor helps Google in the long run.

Here are three important reasons Google should be cheering this move:

  1. Google’s reputation is enhanced by showing that they build CEO-level talent capable of running large global technology firms (not just well-funded startups). GE has this same reputation for operations-oriented companies, boasting a long list of GE alumni as current CEOs.
  2. Google executives now have better connections at the very top of Yahoo. It is not like past Yahoo CEOs wouldn’t take a call from Sergey Brin, but now there are long-standing relationships between the highest levels at both organizations, that can be leveraged when conflicts or potential deals arise.
  3. Google’s internal talent pool is now in motion. As I write, a team of Google HR staff is busy looking at lists of high potentials, trying to find the next Marissa to fill her spot and contemplating replacement options. Filling key vacancies forces companies to be disciplined about talent development and succession, resulting in a stronger, more resilient workforce.

While there is always a sense of loss, and often sadness, when a superstar leaves, the best leaders quickly move on to pride at the accomplishments of one of their team members.  The best a leader can do is to make sure their superstars are building talent throughout the organization so when they leave–and they do always leave–the organization is strong enough to thrive in their absence.

So, congratulations, Eric, for building such exceptional leaders. Best of luck to you, Marissa.  May the wind be in your sails at Yahoo and beyond.


Filed under Thoughts on Leadership

2 responses to “Who Won the CEO Sweepstakes — Yahoo or Google? Why Losing Superstars Makes You Stronger

  1. tcrose@frontiernet.net

    In addition to all the excellent reasons you give,a change like this leaves Google stronger because there is now room for someone else to develop in the slot she leaves. A stronger Yahoo is also a plus for Google!!! Don’t just collect on past accomplishments, be forced to develop new strengths and revenue streams. Your earlier blog on which player to choose, the one who is perfect or the one with potential is relevant here Do I want to join the perfect company or the one I can help develop.

    • Good point, Tom. When Marissa Mayer decided to join Google in 1999, she made the decision partially on whether she would be stretched out of her comfort zone. She knew then and now that an opportunity for learning and growth is better than guaranteed success.


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