I have never met new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, but I’m impressed with her accomplishments and the admiration she enjoys in Silicon Valley.
I am reminded of Charlotte Beers, well-known and very successful former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. Beers was my contemporary; we grew up together in marketing and advertising in the “Mad Men” era of the 1960s. Today, she is mentoring female leaders in business through a program she designed called “X Factor.”
Interviewed recently by The New York Times, Beers affirms that the rules of the road are very different in this corporate world. I was struck by her humility, and the way she mentors women by saying, “Here’s a time when I made this kind of mistake and what I learned from it.” She is trying to understand women’s emotional and intangible assets, trying to break through the natural defense shell. She wants to find out if aspiring women business leaders have confidence about things that matter, as well as in their own ability to think and get to the true center of things.
Charlotte’s own business sense is still right on target. She says that in today’s digital age, there is a danger of relying too much on data and forgetting the illogical breaking-the-rules elements of innovation. And she deplores cynical people: In too many companies, she says, one or two people are originating ideas and the rest are sitting around critiquing – which may be amusing, but is highly unproductive.
In the technology industry, we are in an era where new products have a very short half-life; this year’s cool technologies will be next year’s commodity value technologies. So this generation of talented women leaders like Marissa Mayer will need to demonstrate their intuitive product leadership design skills and their ability to motivate their teams to focus on outstanding user experiences, raising the user satisfaction bar higher and higher.
I believe the most interesting business school case histories are going to be about women in leadership: Their challenges, the difficult choices they made, and some amazing outcomes that will become business folklore.