The X Factor That Will Determine Marissa Mayer’s Success At Yahoo

Yahoo is betting Google’s former innovation guru can turn around its fortunes. While analysts pick apart the tough decisions ahead of her, they are overlooking a critical (if intangible) topic–can she make Yahoo and its culture cool again?

The X Factor That Will Determine Marissa Mayer’s Success At Yahoo


Yahoo is betting Google’s former innovation guru, Marissa Mayer, can turn around its fortunes. While analysts pick apart the tough decisions and cuts ahead of her, they are overlooking a critical secret underlying the job. Her success will depend to a great extent on whether she can make Yahoo cool again.

Picture this. Someone catches your eye at a bar, so you take a chance and approach them. Your pickup success will depend heavily on who you think you are at that moment. Are you confident or unsure, successful or struggling, sexy, or boring? What you believe yourself to be, that internal chatter, subconsciously guides thousands of minute cues–your voice, words, body language–that ultimately determine if you will succeed or fail.

The same principle applies to business. Your company is continually trying to pick up customers, employees, and investors. Success depends heavily on your company’s internal chatter and who your company thinks it is. Here are three reasons:

1. Internal chatter determines your strategy: What your business thinks it is invisibly guides the strategic choices it makes. For example, when Autodesk thought it was an engineering software company it had few options to grow. But when it decided it was a company that helps people digitize 3D environments, an exciting new opportunity became obvious: film animation. Over the past 15 years, every film nominated for an Oscar in film animation has used Autodesk’s animation software. Google, Mayer’s training ground, has such a flexible self concept that it can compete in search, phones, and even windmills–yet still know who it is.

2. Internal chatter excites your investors: What investors think you are determines your value. Internet software service companies like Google, for example, are 3 to 4 times more valuable than media companies (they win average price-earnings ratios of 80 or more, while media companies and Internet content companies typically hover around 25). If by hiring Mayer, Yahoo can convince investors it is a technology company rather than a media company, its value could triple. This is like convincing the person you are trying to pick up at the bar that you are the next Ashton Kutcher instead of an out-of-work actor.

3. Internal chatter engages employees: Everyone wants to be part of the winning team, so by creating a winning identity you win their energy and loyalty. This is why companies pick CEOs with a track record of success. This is why success helps lead to more success.


Mayer’s key challenge, then, is to change who Yahoo thinks it is, to make it cool again so customers, employees, and investors will flock over. Her Google heritage could make her the perfect person for the job.

Three Tips

If your success depends on how cool others think you are, and that depends on how cool you believe yourself to be, it’s worthwhile to sit down for a minute to pick apart what it takes to own your coolness. It will trigger a self-fulfilling cycle. Here are three tips to start:

1. Frame: When someone asks “Who are you?” pay close attention to how you frame your response. Are you a banker who skydives or a skydiver who happens to have a banker’s job? For businesses: Are you an old media brand or a new internet technology company?

2. Chatter: Pay close attention to your inner dialogue. Is what you are saying empowering or depressing? For businesses: Listen to your colleagues around the water cooler. Are they pumping up or bringing down your company?

3. Story: What is the story of how you got here? Do you like the story? Is it empowering? If not, write a new one … don’t fake the facts; just select different ones and give them different meaning. For businesses: what narrative are your employees and investors placing your company in? Does that narrative naturally end with you winning? If not, introduce an alternative one.


[Image: Flickr user Aroid]

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique.