Winning it all: 10 things to learn from Marissa Mayer as a leader


Fighting confidently against the ebbs and flows of life, Marissa Mayer, the famous American technology executive and ex-CEO of Yahoo, is a telling tale of inspiration. The 42-year-old who never gave up on her dreams kept revitalizing herself with frequent career breakthroughs alongside being a great mother. She indeed embodies the spirit of womanhood and female entrepreneurship for many women. Her life, if scrutinized properly, reveals how nothing – absolutely nothing – is impossible if fine-tuned with passion, will, hard work, and diligence.

“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough,” believes Marissa, especially in terms of entrepreneurship. But then, a lot of her life choices reveal the thought pattern of a true leader. We look at her journey, her conquest of mighty obstacles, and how she ascended the frontiers of the male-dominated tech world.

Image: By Magnus Höij ("Marissa Mayer, Google" at Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t shy away from learning new things

Instead of just being an academic wizard, Marissa dived into whatever captivated her interest and attention from a very young age. For example, she actively participated in debating, was a member of the pom-pom squad, took advanced Spanish lessons, and worked as a grocery clerk during her high school years. A very enterprising youth, she was selected to attend the National Youth Science Camp at West Virginia soon after high school.

“It was a very well-rounded childhood with lots of different opportunities. My mom will say she set out to overstimulate me – surround me with way too many things and let me pick. As a result, I’ve always been a multitasker; I’ve always liked a lot of variety,” Marissa shared in an interview.

First, find your passion

Initially, she wanted to become a pediatric neurosurgeon. But during her graduation from Stanford, she grew an interest towards symbolic systems. "I really wanted to be a doctor, until my freshman year of college when I realized that while I was good at chemistry and biology, I really wasn’t feeling challenged by it.”

Making the switch from pre-med classes was indeed difficult, but Marissa was not one to back down. As her interest in the subject grew, she started picking up cognitive psychology, linguistics, and philosophy as well as computer science. All of these would later result in galvanising her in-depth knowledge of interface design and artificial intelligence.

There is a world beyond what you do – embrace it

As strongly as voluntary work is embedded in the American society, Marissa too tried to delve into it. For example, she volunteered at children’s hospitals. She also helped introduce computer science education at schools in Bermuda. The idea was to connect with the different realities, worlds, and lives of people in a humane way.

Meeting more people and seeing the challenges they struggle with prepares you for helping others, especially at work. It also impacts the way you look at people, and builds empathy.

Making the right choice

When Marissa graduated from Stanford in 1999, she received 14 job offers. One of them was from Carnegie Mellon University for a faculty position. Just 24 years of age, Marissa craved for more exposure in technology and a space where she could grow. Hence, she became the 20th employee at Google.

For someone who had limited coding experience, she learned quickly and rose among the ranks to later emerge as one of the official spokesperson at Google. In her time at the company, she had created her own niche, and Marissa’s professional life at Google saw new experiments, path-breaking development, and new interfaces in technology.

“The turning point for me was realizing that I would learn more at Google, trying to build a company, regardless of whether we failed or succeeded than I would at any of the other companies I had offers from.”

Mentoring the next crop

Marissa believes, "Really in technology, it’s about the people, getting the best people, retaining them, nurturing a creative environment and helping to find a way to innovate.”

In an effort to mentor new engineers, Marissa initiated the Associate Product Manager (APM) programme at Google in 2002. The mentorship programme aimed at recruiting and mentoring new talent. Along with intense evening classes, the engineers who were selected for this two-year programme were involved in several extra-curricular activities to polish their acumen.

Balancing family and professional life

Unlike several ambitious women who are forced to choose between career or family life, Marissa made no such distinction between the personal and the professional. Her family was as important to her as her CEO position at Yahoo. In fact, it was one of the reasons why she elongated the maternity leave time for female employees at the company, especially considering she herself faced criticism for returning to work only a couple of weeks after giving birth.

Humble to criticism

Some of the online programmes like PB&J (Process, Bureaucracy, & Jams) and performance review systems which were introduced by Marissa were heavily criticized by the American media. But in spite of the widespread speculation and criticism, Marissa never got rattled by the media glare and did not allow the outside world to hinder her passion, choices, and decisions. Looking at the time when she was experimenting, it was tough for women leaders to break the glass ceiling, which Marissa was able to do with her grit and humility.

“I think it’s very comforting for people to put me in a box. ‘Oh, she’s a fluffy girlie girl who likes clothes and cupcakes. Oh, but wait, she is spending her weekends doing hardware electronics.’”

Being articulate and persuasive

Oratory is another clinical attribute which makes for a great leader. Marissa understood this early in her life, and in spite of being a shy child, she taught herself the art of speech-making. Adhering to the picture-superiority principle, Marissa is known for her storytelling and presenting skills which are able to cast a spell on the minds of audiences. Instead of indulging in monotonous business pie-charts and data analysis, Marissa believes in being a storyteller so that she can create an emotional connection with her audience, no matter what the demography is.

“Communications is the biggest driver of the frequency of use of anything. Think about how many times a day you check your email on your phone or text someone or message someone," she believes.

Keeping up with time

When Marissa was at Yahoo, she never failed at keeping up with the latest trends. For example, she renovated the entire cubicle system at Yahoo to make it appear more lively and startup-like. Along with providing the engineers top-of-the-line smartphones, she kept hiring new talented teams of engineers who could help Yahoo acquire other small companies. In short, all her efforts and decision-making came from a place of strength, experimenting, and taking on challenges.

Foresight and long-term planning

Marissa made sure that after her resignation, she had ample financial investments to safeguard her independence and future. Even now, she actively invests in technology companies, startups, and small-scale businesses.

Though Marissa has been strongly criticized in the past for her rock star image, her hard work, leadership skills, and new programmes are a legacy. Great motivational skills and keeping herself down-to-earth and accessible have helped her carve a name for herself. However, her saga is not over yet, and it will be interesting to see her growth in the future.