Being from Wisconsin, it’s no surprise that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer quotes legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi when discussing leadership. It’s also no wonder she describes her leadership role at one of the world’s leading Web brands as playing the defence to her employee’s offence – clearing the path for them to run as fast as possible.

Lombardi had a famous quote that his priorities in life were “God, family, and the Green Bay Packers,” Mayer told Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff in an interview in front of a packed keynote hall at the Moscone Centre in San Francisco. “I’m not really that religious so for me it’s just ‘family, Yahoo.'”

Speaking at Dreamforce, the annual Salesforce.com conference that is being attended by more than 120,000, Mayer discussed her approach to leading an organization that has been a mainstay of the Web since the ’90s. After a delayed start in which Benioff stalled for time by taking questions from the audience, and later being disrupted by anti-Walmart protestors (Mayer is on the board) she described her work to pivot Yahoo to a strong focus on mobile.

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff takes questions from the audience ahead of the Mayer interview.
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff takes questions from the audience ahead of the Mayer interview.

When Mayer joined Yahoo and ascertained there were only 60 people working on the mobile team, she knew she had to move quickly to make changes. “I guess it wasn’t a crisis but it was an immediate priority,” she said.

Mayer tapped Adam Cahan at Yahoo, pulling him off of a project to develop a tablet-based companion application to watching TV, and asked him to lead the mobile team and become the senior vice president of mobile and emerging products. Cahan has since grown the mobile team to 400 employees and Mayer is proud of the results.

“The things I’m most proud of is we have almost 400 million mobile monthly users,” she says. “When you look at our applications, they’re beautiful.”

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer knew mobile was a priority when she took the helm.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer knew mobile was a priority when she took the helm.

All those monthly visitors come on mobile because of Yahoo’s core focus around delivering content that fit into people’s daily habits, Mayer says. Checking the weather, looking up sports scores, following stocks, reading news, and searching the Web. Yahoo’s design process to deliver this content to mobile is internally driven, she says, and focused not just on making its product useable, but useful too.

“I’d argue it’s important not to lead with design but have it as part of the overall product process,” Mayer told Benioff. “You shouldn’t design for the expert user… you should build products that are easy to learn so in days you can be an expert.”

Getting to the point of delivering Yahoo’s mobile app wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Mayer encountered a point of friction in employees having difficulty making the transition from one team to another – so those who wanted to come and focus on the mobile apps were blocked from doing so.

To solve that problem and other lethargy encountered by an organization with the size and legacy of Yahoo, Mayer instituted a new tool called PB&J – process, bureaucracy, and jams – so employees could communicate what they felt was holding them back. It’s one part of the transparency that Mayer wants to foster at Yahoo.

“I do love design,” she said. “I don’t get to design the products, I get to design the organization. I get to design the strategy and what it feels like to be an employee at Yahoo.”

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