Day 76: The Yahoo Revival Meeting (Starring His Digital Holiness Steve Jobs)!
What do you do when you want to inject a little inspiration into a company that needs a lot of it?
Do you hold an all-day meeting of top execs where you actually outline specific goals and exhibit better leadership?
Do you admit your corporate culture is a little weak and promise to focus on strengthening it?
Do you trot out all the senior execs and let them talk about their concrete plans (and, better still, actually prepare them to deliver their spiel with some level of quality)?
Do you do some post-lunch touchy-feely group exercises to get people talking?
Best of all, if you really want to send things over the top, do you bring out an icon so beloved as to give goosebumps to explain to the troops how he managed to turn his once-beleaguered and now-soaring company around?
All that and more occurred on Friday at Yahoo HQ as CEO Jerry Yang and President Sue Decker really put on a show that seemed to resonate with the 300-plus top Yahoo executives (vice president and above) gathered there, capped by an appearance by Apple’s Steve Jobs, who is apparently now Silicon Valley’s equivalent of Oprah.
Most people I spoke with said they grudgingly started the day with very low expectations, but found they quickly warmed to a heartfelt but clearly articulated message by Yang and Decker of what Yahoo needed to do to revive itself.
“Our leaders finally showed some leadership,” said one longtime exec in attendance, who–like many Yahoos–has become extremely disheartened by the downward drift of the online giant of late. “Both Jerry and Sue actually obviously took time and care to think about what we should and, more importantly, should not be doing.”
Said another: “It was not as if there was some huge revelation, but a reminder of the great assets we have that makes our destiny all about execution.”
The day, organized by PR head Jill Nash and others with the help of San Francisco-based consulting firm Stone Yamashita Partners, also included talks led by top Yahoo brass–primarily Yang and Decker.
But also on stage: Jeff Weiner (EVP, Network), Hilary Schneider (EVP, Global Partnership Solutions), Ash Patel (EVP, Platforms and Infrastructure) and even Blake Jorgensen, whose videos and general presentation got high marks from those I talked to (who knew a CFO could be so funny?).
The big idea of the day centered on a word Yang used a lot in the July investors’ meeting (where he also unfortunately promised a top-to-bottom review within 100 days and that there were “no sacred cows” at Yahoo): Ecosystem.
And by this, I think he means a virtuous circle of advertisers, publishers, consumers, all married together by great products and content. It’s a nice word for Yang’s vision, although as any high-school science student knows, ecosystems are very delicate and can get thrown out of whack easily (check out this lovely woodland one below and guess which Yahoo exec is the skunk!).
Among the key focuses of this ecosystem mentioned Friday was: the building out of Yahoo’s ad network, taking advantage of its “consumer insights”; the creation of a healthier corporate culture where fresh ideas could bubble up more effectively and be launched with less agony; and a new move to create a more open network a la Facebook on Yahoo for third-party developers to publish on and create more robust offerings.
Many were dubious about the latter and Yahoo’s ability to open itself up and become a truly accessible platform play, rather than just a good partner for publishers.
That’s because its portal origins are more a command-and-control, owned-and-operated style that will be hard to shake–kind of like The Wall Street Journal inviting outside reporters to contribute.
But it was a brilliant choice on the part of Yahoo leadership to use the halo effect of Jobs–whose story of struggle over adversity is well known–in focusing their execs toward the new direction for the company.
(And it is surely a quantum leap up from former CEO Terry Semel’s choice of the, shall we say, unusual musings of Tom Cruise as a motivational tactic.)
Yang interviewed the much more appropriate Jobs, admitting up front that he was “nervous” for the first time that day when he sat down to chat with the tech legend, whom Yang called one of his heroes.
Jobs basic message: You have great assets–just like Apple did–and now it is all about execution.
Thanks, Steve! (Although easy for him to say, given Yang does not exactly have the kind of emperor thing going for him in this regard as Jobs does).
Actually, execution has always been Yahoo’s weakness, so that’s the right way to frame it, given the Yahoo-as-loser theme really has not been the most accurate.
It’s hard to imagine another company with such amazing assets–traffic, those valuable consumer insights, a spate of terrific products–allowing itself to be written off so easily. Anyway, that’s my job!
All kidding aside, while ups and downs are certainly part of the business cycle, Yahoo has been wallowing in the down for longer than it needs to be without articulating both outwardly and inwardly what is needs to do and, more importantly, to be.
The Friday meeting seems to have solved that internally at least, with VPs going back to their jobs feeling jazzed up and ready to rumble.
Now, it will be up to Yang and Decker to keep up the enthusiasm they clearly generated at the Friday meeting, even up until the very end of the day by unveiling 10 key principles for the company (a lot on corporate culture and not very specific, but it’s good to write these things down).
To my mind, that means cutting deadwood and allowing employees to feel empowered. It means saying yes a lot more than no. It means making some big, bold and maybe even dumb moves in the areas targeted to shake a few trees. It means laser-focus on the promises made.
And it means perhaps even continuing to have meetings like this too, much more regularly and for everyone (by the way, rival Google has a company-wide, ask-the-execs-whatever event in Mountain View weekly, so steal that idea for starters).
And externally, Yahoo needs to come out of its corporate cave, where it has been living for far too long.
While that makes sense sometimes, Yahoo is simply indulging in a broken corporate mantra of not talking about what they are doing at all, because of an irksome “We’re not ready to show you” proclivity on every product or offering.
Web 3.0 is not secretive and will be very, very open. So I think we all know by now that being fussy perfectionists in a fast-moving world of tech is no longer advisable.
Take a lesson from Jobs–roll them out and keep up the momentum and excitement as you do. (Well, don’t copy his most recent cloddish moves to iBrick iPhones, which only reveals the dictatorial steel fist under the velvet glove way too much).
And even then, as Jobs does even when in trouble, don’t avoid the spotlight.
In other words: Call, write, we miss you. And, as a gesture of good faith, I officially invite Yang for breakfast at AllThingsD HQ–that would be the cottage behind my house–on Day 99 (Oct. 24!) of his No-Sacred-Cows Vision Quest.
Because like he said to his troops on Friday: After all, tomorrow is another day.