How Not to Lead a Team: Yahoo CEO Fires CMO While on Vacation

News broke last week that new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had replaced Chief Marketing Officer Mollie Spillman while she was on vacation. That doesn’t exactly sound like the high-trust model of team leadership I encourage - but let’s take a closer look and see if there’s a sensible strategy behind the move.

Apparently insiders are saying everyone on the executive team expects to be gone within a year, or 18 months at most. Everyone? Wow, we're talking Chinese opera here...no survivors.

Here's the problem with Ms. Mayer's approach. Half of the people on her team probably assume they’re cooked. So they’ll go through the motions, either because they are good, ethical people who work hard, or because they don't want to jeopardize healthy severance packages. This is no time to have your executive team just going through the motions.

The other half of the team might be feverishly competing to be the one left standing, the million-dollar winner not voted off of Yahoo Survivor. Maybe they love the company and want to be part of the turnaround. Maybe their egos just relish the thought of being the hero who escapes near-certain death. Either way, this kind of battle royale tends to elicit some unsportsmanlike behavior. This is no time to have your team focused on an internal fight to the death - you’ve got to make sure the company still exists a year from now!

Here are some key lessons for a team leader in this kind of situation:

  1. Don't walk into a team arrogantly proclaiming that anyone hired by someone far less smart than you (your predecessor) could not possibly be good enough. Try starting with a positive assumption. You might be surprised at the talent you find...and the millions you save.
  2. Don't assume that members of the current team won't be a good fit for your personality or style. Really, you can’t “mesh” with ANY of the 10 people already in place? That looks like your problem, not theirs.
  3. Do have high standards and articulate them clearly. Then provide rapid feedback and tough-love coaching to the members of the team. Anyone who’s just sitting back and waiting for someone else to piss you off first needs to go.
  4. Do fire people who pay more attention to protecting their jobs than to the customer. This will probably require some advice and counsel from a lieutenant you trust, because you won't be privy to the worst of their behavior. They'll be too busy kissing your...um....strategy.
  5. Do get it done quickly. Eighteen months is way too long to have your executive team playing the Hunger Games. Get it done in a quarter, then focus on building, coaching, and supporting the team you've got left. If a year later you realize you've made a mistake by keeping someone, deal with it then.

So, was firing Ms. Spillman while she was on vacation actually a smart move from Melissa Mayer? I think she could have waited a week.

…For a broader leadership take on this issue, check out Vince Molinaro’s blog.  You’ll hear how he gives Ms. Mayer kudos for being decisive (if not deliberate).