Quora Question: What Can CEOs Learn From Marissa Mayer's Struggle at Yahoo?

Marissa Mayer, president and CEO of Yahoo. Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

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Answer from Stan Hanks, CTO of Columbia Ventures Corp:

Knowing when to say no.

I get it—Marissa is bright, determined, capable and wanted to show that off in a spectacular way. Given the opportunity to "turn around Yahoo," it's almost an irresistible challenge.

The problem is, none of her prior experience prepared her for this, at all.

Turnarounds are hard. Mr. Newton wasn't kidding about that whole inertia thing, and it applies to organizations just as much as it applies to physical objects. And once an organization has certain mass, you (eventually) learn that the primary function of the organization is to preserve itself.

I've been asked to do several turn-arounds. I've accepted a few. The ones that I've passed on all had some common traits:

  • large bodies of staff who had been ill-managed for a long time;
  • deep uncertainty about the revenue model;
  • deeply entrenched cost structures that needed to be blown up, but organizations who were deeply resistant to the things that needed to be done, mainly for "because we've always done it this way" reasons;
  • insufficient cash runway if revenue went to zero or near zero for a period of time;
  • lack of an effective way to gain the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file as I purged the middle and upper management;
  • lack of an idea (on my part) as to how exactly the actual hell I was going to pull this off.

If I'd gotten the call, instead of Marissa, I'd have checked boxes on all of those items, and the answer would have been a polite turn of the conversation as to how I might be retained in a senior role to restructure part of the business, or as a special consultant to the board, but a big, fat no to eating the whole pig at once.

Until you've tried—and failed—and also tried and succeeded at turning around failing businesses, there's just stuff you don't know.

As my thesis advisor used to say "experience is what you get when you don't have any." I'd say Marissa has gained some real experience in her tenure at Yahoo, and while I wish her well, I don't wish what she's gone through on anyone, ever.

What can other CEOs learn from Marissa Mayer's struggle to turn Yahoo around? originally appeared on Quora—the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: