Yahoo’s Roller Coaster Impacts More Than Shareholders

Getty Images News | Justin Sullivan

Here we go again. After just four months, Yahoo has taken the CEO reins from Scott Thompson and passed them to interim CEO Ross Levinsohn, marking the fifth change in the company’s top job in the past four years. During this time, the company’s market cap has deteriorated from $28.53 billion at the end of June 2008 to $19.04 billion today, clearly indicating what the revolving CEO suite and associated roller coaster has done to shareholder confidence. But what about the impact on the 13,300 people employed by Yahoo?1 Clearly, this is something the Yahoo board of directors and Levinsohn — however interim he is — must address, if they hope to achieve a turnaround.

Think about it: Yahoo employees who have weathered multiple rounds of layoffs have also had to adapt to the frequently changing leadership tides created by the revolving door at the top of the company: Jerry Yang, Carol Bartz, Timothy Morse, Scott Thompson, and now Ross Levinsohn. Not surprisingly, this has impacted Yahoo employees’ faith in senior leadership over time.

According to social jobs and career site Glassdoor, morale at Yahoo has softly teetered from quarter to quarter. On a five-point scale, employees have given the company a high rating of 4.3 (satisfied) in the first quarter of 2008 to a low of 3.0 in the second quarter of 2009; however, the rating has settled around 3.4 (okay), for the most part.

However, the employee sentiment surrounding how well each Yahoo CEO has led the company has had a much more turbulent path. When Carol Bartz started off, she had a 91 percent approval rating in her first quarter, but by her last quarter on the job, it sank to just 33 percent. For Thompson, it was too short to tell if his 48 percent approval was a starting-off point based on employee satisfaction, or if it was his personal high note.

Evidence of this employee turmoil, along with a desire for more direction and stability, can be found in many of the anonymous reviews left by Yahoo employees on Glassdoor in recent months:

As one Yahoo senior financial analyst comments, “Develop a clear strategy, and stick to it! Way too much disparity in communicating what it is the company stands for.”

A Yahoo principal engineer adds, “The lack of vision is really astounding … Executive management should try better communicating with senior management and solicit their input when making such major personnel changes. There should be clear strategic goals conveying what is trying to be accomplished.”

Another Yahoo employee notes that Yahoo “lacks a clear vision of what the company is all about. The sooner they figure this out, the sooner they can focus their resources in the right direction.”

Employees know the company best. As a leader, you may think you know, hear and understand your company’s challenges, but if you fail to listen to your employees and therefore fail to address those challenges, you will likely find the road to growth and change within the company tougher than expected.

Now, perhaps more than ever, Yahoo’s executives and board should listen to and focus on what’s at the heart of the company: Its employees. Some proven strategies that can support stabilization and rebuilding the business include:

Leadership must extend beyond one title or one person. There are a lot of executives on the Yahoo management team beyond interim head Levinsohn, some of whom have extensive tenure with the company, including co-founder David Filo. This team needs to quickly build consensus on strategic priorities and collectively own responsibility to make sure this is communicated and understood by the entire Yahoo employee population. The new permanent CEO should build on this foundational direction, not deviate from it or completely change it.

Define your vision, stick with it and repeat. Where the company is headed should be articulated in one clear, crisp statement, and as CEO or as a senior leader, it should be used and touched on routinely in all communications, both internally and externally. There is a lot to get done as a leader; there is a lot to convey. But without purpose and vision, efforts to move a business forward will fall flat.

Don’t mistake perks for culture. In the Valley, where talent wars are fierce, we often regard perks as synonymous with culture. While a hefty paycheck, bonuses and other perks like free food, on-site dry cleaning or on-campus childcare may help recruit top talent, they don’t do much to retain talent the way a solid and positive culture does. A good culture takes time, and emanates from a work environment that provides room for — and rewards — creative thinking, and allows opinions to be heard and to be challenged.

Get personal. I suspect that the trust level of senior management has been seriously compromised, and this last blow regarding Thompson’s degree has hurt whatever trust was left. It’s going to be a tough road ahead for Levinsohn and his succession when it comes to winning the hearts of employees. But Yahoo’s senior leadership can make it right, if they make it personal and swing for the fences in communication by hosting small group meetings and by truly showing that management is listening to the wishes, desires and dreams that employees have for the company and for themselves.

This is another critical juncture for Yahoo. With the board and management team in transition, it is especially important that time and resources be dedicated to rebuilding a new social contract with Yahoo employees around the world. Employees come to work every day and vote with their feet for the company to succeed, and it’s the responsibility of senior leadership to work on bringing together the troops to get the company back on track.

Rusty Rueff is a corporate and philanthropic board director, career and workplace expert consultant and writer, as well as start-up company adviser and investor. He currently serves on the corporate boards of Glassdoor, the leading social jobs and career community, and, a video interviewing platform designed to improve the recruiting process. Rusty is also the co-author of “Talent Force: A New Manifesto for the Human Side of Business” (Prentice Hall, 2006).

1 Yahoo employee counts based on information provided at end of Q1 2012 in Yahoo Investor FAQs.

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