Marissa Mayer is not the exception. She is the norm.
By Gianpiero Petriglieri
Marissa Mayer has been a boon for the press and pundit arm of the leadership industrial complex. The industry dedicated to the creation and critique of celebrity leaders has given Yahoo!’s surprise choice of the Google veteran for its top job the treatment reserved for big occasions. The commentary says less about Mayer and Yahoo!, however, than it does about our current expectations about leaders' lives and careers, argues INSEAD Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri.
(Fontainbleau, France, 20 July 2012) Imagine for a moment that you had been yielding the abovementioned industry’s seasonal advice to “disconnect” over the last four days and just logged back on. Here is a summary of the outpouring of reporting, commentary, celebration, gossip, speculation, vitriol, admonition, and debate that the newly-minted CEO generated in traditional and new media alike.
A traditional route to the top
Mayer - a Stanford-educated exceptionally-talented and skilled engineer - is efficient, ambitious, demanding and hardworking. Work occupies a large portion of her life. In the past 13 years, she held several key operational roles at Google, contributing to its expansion and accumulating a considerable personal fortune.
Some Googlers who worked with Mayer found her style abrasive and her pace hard to sustain. In her early years, apparently, her interpersonal skills were inferior to her user focus and technical prowess. Many engineers relished working for her nevertheless, and her management skills improved with experience.
While her record is not a perfect match for Yahoo! and she will be new there, Mayer is a consummate insider in the IT industry. She has also cultivated a network within and beyond Silicon Valley that includes the President of the United States.
Mayer and her spouse are expecting a child. Much has been said about whether this may impinge on her work duties. There is broad consensus on one point. A supportive partner and the means to afford a range of childcare options will alleviate the restrictions that parenthood could pose on Mayer’s availability at work. Although that makes her predicament incomparable to that of many less prominent and resourceful working mothers, it still makes her a potential role model for them.
Like any CEO hired from outside to turn around a company in distress, and like any parent expecting the first child, Mayer may not know what she is getting into. Neither, however, does anyone who claims to know.
Are you bored yet?
I hope you are. In an ideal world, every sensible reader by now should be screaming, “What’s new?” and not just because you have read it before. Nothing above is “news", by any stretch of the imagination. It is the norm. Whether you find it admirable, uninteresting or depressing, that is the profile and history of most CEOs in this day and age - but for one dramatic twist.
She is a pregnant woman. That, even in 2012, is what makes it a compelling story.
The exceptionalism surrounding this event - the amount and tone of commentary, the curiosity and sensitivity to it, the seething mix of admiration, concern and envy, the that’s-a-ma-zing, leave-her-alone and what’s-the-big-deal - is the kind commonly reserved for, dare I say, a birth. Specifically, the birth of a world in which a woman, even while she happens to be pregnant, may land the top job at a Fortune 500 if she so wishes.
Gianpiero Petriglieri, MD (@gpetriglieri ) is Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, the Business School with campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. He is an expert on the psychology underpinning the exercise and development of leadership, and the director of the Management Acceleration Programme, INSEAD’s flagship executive program for emerging leaders.
Don’t get me wrong. I find it inspiring and liberating - as a professional, as a man, as a professional’s husband, as the father of a girl and a boy - to wake up in such a world. It’s the kind of world that I hope I’m helping to build.
A problematic reception
To really do so, however, we must also face that the exceptionalism surrounding Mayer’s appointment also reveals another, more problematic norm. A subtler but no less pernicious form of discrimination that does without closed doors and put-downs - one that pegs individuals to a minority identity and invites them to enact or justify that identity’s stereotypes. Whether they like it or not, regardless of other identities they also hold. It does not seem to matter as much that Mayer is white, intelligent and Ivy league-educated, that she is wealthy and appears fit - that she is a card-carrying member of an elite - if she is a woman, mon Dieu! - and a mother.
This is why, en route to winning at the game of meritocracy, many Marissa Mayers out there have learned, more or less deliberately, more or less painfully, to make such deflecting statements as “I’m not a girl at Google. I am a geek at Google.” The kind of statement that may well help affiliate with other (i.e. male) geeks, free one up to focus on the job, succeed and get ahead - while at the same time confirming a nagging suspicion. That even in times and places where we’re admonished to pour our true selves into work, being a “geek", or a CEO, has to be kept separate from being a “girl". A disclaimer that is rarely expected of us “boys” old and young.
The lessons we must draw from this exceptional event, which reveals less about Mayer and Yahoo! than it does about our norms, is the following: Leaders, especially such visible ones, have to accept constant and ruthless scrutiny that won’t stop at their results. Followers, opponents and observers will always question their motives and lives. And they will account for the leader’s story in ways that reveal and serve their interest. Good leaders know it and work with it.
At the same time, we must take this opportunity to scrutinise, for once, not just the leader but also ourselves. To cast a light on the ways in which the stories we tell about our leaders - the patterns of thinking and feeling, actions and talk, which we take for granted - affect the efforts and opportunities to lead of those who appear different from us, and may not be as different as we make them to be.