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Marissa Mayer and Ollie Ollie Oxen Free!

Friday, April 12, 2013   (3 Comments)
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By Jan C. Hill

Remember back when you were a kid and you’d play outside as late as you possibly could on long, balmy summer evenings. I’d join the boys on my street in an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. One person was "it” and had to guard the compound from the "spies,” who were trying to touch the coveted "home space” unnoticed. If you were caught, you became an "it,” too, so it became even harder to survive as a spy. If you could outfox and outlast the growing team of "its,” you’d eventually hear "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free!” being shouted out, meaning you won and could come home safely.

I loved hiding out near the home space unnoticed and hearing the "its” talk when they thought I wasn’t listening. As the only girl in the group, this gave me unprecedented access to the inner workings of boys’ minds. Over time, the boys decided to handicap the game by declaring that two spies had to work together and come in together. I liked this, too, because it allowed me to partner with someone different from me and to learn and use what they knew. Collaborating was harder. I liked the challenge.

Now, all these years later, it doesn’t seem so different in the corporate world. Women are still the minority in the c-suite, but we can gain access to information, intelligence and collaboration that makes us smarter and better.

That’s why I was flummoxed by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to put the kibosh on any employees’ ability to work from home. It’s the type of unilateral executive decision that didn’t seem to be well thought out, and as a result she’s been filleted in the media.

Apparently, Mayer learned that many remote workers weren’t regularly accessing the Yahoo intranet, some were rumored to be starting and running side businesses and some just weren’t as available and collaborative as they needed to be for Yahoo to get ahead. Rather than fire them, Mayer thought it would be better to just put a stop to the work-from-home option to invite the type of collaboration that only happens when people are physically in the same place.

Many productive working parents who have enjoyed the flexibility of an occasional telecommuting option felt betrayed. This led to personal attacks on Mayer, herself a new mother. While some argued that she should understand and support working parents, others slammed her because she built a nursery for her child on the Yahoo campus so that she could return to work just a few short weeks after giving birth.

Madeline Albright was famous for saying: "There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support women.” For my part, I have to admit that I went to hell for a bit. My immediate reaction was to condemn Mayer’s judgment because it tweaked a value of mine – the ability for solid performers to choose how they work to accomplish a goal. I saw this as a management problem and that Mayer’s solution "threw the baby out with the bath water” and would alienate good performers who didn’t abuse the work-from-home privilege.

I recalled a mentor I had at Procter & Gamble, Joe Reynolds, who once told me to go home because I wasn’t being effective. He’s also the guy who told me to get my hair cut on company time because it grew on company time. I cherished him because he taught me how to use my energy and my own judgment about what I needed to do to produce top results.

But here’s the kicker – Mayer wasn’t dealing with top performers.

At 37 years of age — and 28 weeks pregnant — she had the guts to take the helm of badly broken, largely dysfunctional, poor-performing organization. Since then, she’s refused to let work keep her from pursuing her dream of having a baby and she’s refused to let motherhood prevent her from fulfilling her dream of reinventing a company. To accomplish this, she threw out a bold leadership directive that basically stated: We need all hands on deck now, including me! She knows the best ideas occur when smart people are spontaneously collaborating in the same space. She feels that right now Yahoo needs to avoid the siloing that invariably happens when people regularly work from home. She’s not afraid to take a stand and upset people. She’s willing to lead.

Let’s call "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free” because maybe it’s time to stop listening to the "its,” whose job is to protect the home space, and begin thinking like the spy that outfoxes them. If Mayer has the guts to try a new way, and her board has the guts to support her for who she is and what she wants to accomplish, then she may just have what it takes to pull this off. I think I’ve talked myself out of hell, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Jan Hill is CEO of Hill Enterprises Inc., a consulting, coaching and training company established in 1990. She previously served as a manager with Procter & Gamble.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.



Jan Hill, HEI says...
Posted Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Melanie, I couldn't agree with you more! And, not only is it imperative that women support women, but that women also accept the support of other women. It would be great if you would share your ongoing observations and suggestions here as your journey unfolds. Ideally, I'd like this blog to be responsive to the issues, opportunities and concerns that affect us and our leaders. If anyone would like to write to me personally on content you'd like to see or issues you'd like me to address, please feel free to write me at Thanks again, Melanie, for your comments. Much appreciated.
Melanie Cangemi, Coca-Cola Company, The says...
Posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Jan, I read your article. It is easy to criticize women in a leadership role; but I like your approach. Look at where she is and what she is doing rather than judging. We have a new VP of Sales coming into our part of the organization. I think the first women on this side of the business. I am one of the few people who have worked with her before. Immediately, individuals started asking questions and sharing concerns. I immediately thought back to the positive times she influenced others and made a difference. I shared these stories. Women Must Support Women. We have enough critics standing in line to judge our decisions. If we supported each other, we would be running more companies. I commend you for the change of heart.
Robert Wray says...
Posted Thursday, April 18, 2013
Great column (and great photo), Jan. So nice to have you writing for NEW!

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