Kara Swisher

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Even as Stock Soars, a Not-So-Glamorous Magazine Close-Up of Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer

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The many splashy photos of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer are there, as are the complimentary pull-quotes (“She’s … single-handedly transformed the culture and made people proud to work [at Yahoo].)

Indeed, just yesterday, the stock of the company closed at a high it has not seen since 2006, above $38 a share.

But share price — goosed by Yahoo’s stake in China’s Alibaba Group and faith in Mayer — is not the main focus of a magazine profile of Silicon Valley’s most high-profile CEO of the moment, which is featured in this month’s Vanity Fair and on its website.

And it is not quite the gush-fest that Mayer — who started her career at search giant Google — usually gets.

“As one of Google’s highest-ranking women, Marissa Mayer became a Silicon Valley superstar, but inside the search giant her dazzle sometimes wore thin, with colleagues rebelling against her imperious style,” notes the piece by well-regarded business writer Bethany McLean.

While some will call it a hatchet job, made worse because it’s about a prominent woman, it’s not that, by any means. And the piece echoes issues raised by Nicholas Carlson’s recent long profile of Mayer, which is set to become a book. McLean is careful to point out Mayer’s many laudable attributes — she’s wickedly smart, driven, creative, persistent. But it also presents a much more nuanced and, to my mind, truthful picture of a complex personality that often gets glossed over.

High-gloss, in fact, for anyone who read and perused Vogue’s recent paean to Mayer, which presented a fantastically coiffed geek princess dressed and splayed on a chaise lounge, an exotic creature of endlessly fantastic parties, sharp business moves and an unreal charmed life.

While McLean’s piece is titled “Yahoo’s Geek Goddess,” and goes over the usual story of Mayer’s spectacular rise, from her childhood in Wisconsin to her appointment as Yahoo’s leader, it also delves into a part of her fascinating psyche that many who have followed her career more than superficially will recognize.

Writes McLean in a key paragraph:

But a glittering surface often deflects attention from a messier reality, and that’s true with Mayer and Yahoo. No one wants to sound as if they aren’t rooting for Yahoo or for her, and because Mayer didn’t cooperate for this article, even her friends were often unwilling to speak on the record about her. She’s anything but easy to categorize, in ways that are both interesting and possibly troubling for Yahoo’s future. “She is a confusing person,” says someone who worked with her closely. “It is a mistake to paint her as an angel or as a devil.” Another executive who worked with her agrees that she is a hard person to understand. “There are some parts of Marissa that are just inexplicably weird,” he says. “It doesn’t add up.”

Among the mathematical quandaries, as outlined in the piece: A near-obsession with getting press for herself, a doesn’t-play-well manner with peers, and a proclivity to overstate her contributions at Google (which were, even without all the bragging, myriad and important).

Writes McLean:

The exaggeration of Mayer’s role may not have been her fault — the superwoman myth made for an exceptionally appealing narrative for journalists — but it still caused resentment inside Google, a sense that she was given credit for things that weren’t all hers. “In the early days, the publicity was all about Google, and it was great,” says a former Google employee. “In the later days, it was ‘We’ve created a monster.’” Another former employee tells me that there are multiple possible narratives about Mayer. “Is she a great product person and technologist?” he asks. “You bet. But is she insecure and needs attention? You bet. Is she narcissistic? You bet. All of these narratives have a grain of truth to them.”

Also worth a look is the account of tensions with hedge fund investor Dan Loeb of Third Point, who essentially put Mayer in her job at Yahoo. That includes over her original business plan, in which she apparently said, “Yahoo’s 14,000-person workforce should be cut to between 7,000 and 9,000.” When she decided not to make cuts, and play “savior” instead, Loeb was especially furious.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me concerns her demotion at Google over time, due in large part to repeated clashes with other execs and engineers. McLean quoted one, who articulated a sentiment that I have also heard over and over again from many others: “Marissa insisted on control from beginning to end in a way that alienated a lot of peers. People like that are generally not collaborative.”

But that kind of manner might make for a great CEO, and Mayer’s supernatural ability to keep forging ahead despite setbacks — many self-inflicted, according to the piece — is riveting to read about, especially as she lost power at Google:

Internally, it was ‘O.M.G., whoa, Marissa is no longer in power,’” says another former Google employee. “Externally, she was brilliant. She handled it with incredible grace. She got her P.R. team on it and said, ‘Oh, now I’m managing more people.’” And it worked: Most stories about Mayer simply skimmed over her demotion.

“She is so adept at positioning herself, and she is a survivor,” says a Valley executive. “She had so many enemies at Google. They neutralized her, but they didn’t kill her.”

“She was a genius,” says another Valley executive. “She played the power game better than anyone. She sucked it up, she didn’t quit, she took over what she could, she didn’t tag herself out. And when she had the opportunity to make a move, she did.”

Now, that kind of drive is what makes for a great character, and — in this portrayal, at least — Mayer finally becomes a real flesh-and-blood figure, with enormous foibles and impressive strengths.

You know, not just the kind of person you read about in magazines.

(Disclosure: I write occasionally for Vanity Fair.)


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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus