Marissa Mayer, Telecommuting and Honest Abe

Carl Weinschenk

Many commentators have weighed in on Marissa Mayer’s ill-conceived ban on telecommuting.

Rob Enderle, my colleague here at IT Business Edge, suggests that Mayer is a victim of her inexperience. He writes that being the top gun is a lot different from being a high-level underling, and that Mayer will need to reverse direction if she wants to be successful. Another IT Business Edge blogger, Don Tennant, suggested that Mayer – perhaps losing her bearings because of the amount of money she is making – should remember how important telecommuting is to young mothers like her and to families.

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Five Tips for Successful Telecommuting

I totally agree with Rob, from his reasoning through to his conclusions. I have a couple of things to add: The Yahoo situation is a great event for telecommuting, unified communications and potentially for Marissa Mayer. Also, Abraham Lincoln was one smart fellow.

Let’s start with Mr. Lincoln. In the book Team of Rivals -- one of the main sources for the movie Lincoln -- author Doris Kearns Goodwin presents the strange image of Lincoln calling on the egomaniacal commander of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, and being made to wait in his parlor for long periods. In one instance, McClellan simply went to bed while the president was downstairs. Goodwin describes the wrath Lincoln’s staffers felt.

Lincoln, however, displayed no anger. Lincoln understood that his goal – winning the Civil War – was paramount. Nothing else mattered much. A theme of the book is that Lincoln, under the folksy and funny exterior, was extraordinarily shrewd. He didn’t care about the slights and probably figured that it was necessary to treat McClellan in this way to get as much out of him as he did (which, it turns out, wasn’t too much). Writes Goodwin: “He would hold McClellan’s horse, he once said, if a victory could be achieved.”

The point of this in the context of Mayer’s move is that blanket decisions and edicts from on high rarely are good ones. Lincoln’s overriding desire was to win the war, and he naïvely thought that McClellan was the general to do that. He was mistaken in that – thank goodness U.S. Grant came along – but he managed people in a way designed to achieve his goal, not flex his muscles. Marissa Mayer won’t be called on to save the Union, but she should read the book.

Fast forwarding to modern times, it’s been an extraordinarily good week for unified communications and telecommuting. Mayer’s pronouncement and the firestorm it created is as good a definition of “teachable moment” as is imaginable. Suddenly, the very issue that telecommuting advocates and unified communications vendors have spent years pushing – the value of working from outside the office – is for the moment a high-profile national debate.

People in the marketing departments of UC vendors, service providers, value-added resellers and other members of the food chain should pounce. They should be begging for emergency funds to market and advertise. For once, people are listening.

And what should they be saying? Actually, it’s pretty simple. They should cede the point that lots of good ideas happen by the coffee station and in the parking lot and that some of these are lost in a highly decentralized organization. But, after that, they should maintain that people are increasingly at home with electronic communications and the gap between the creativity at play in the hallways and on Facebook is narrowing by the day, especially among younger employees.

The marketing materials should remind people that telecommuting opens the organizations to legions of talented and motivated workers who simply don’t live near company offices. Those good ideas that don’t hatch because people aren’t in the office are offset by an order of magnitude by other good ideas that come from remote workers in Antimony, Ellisburg and Pepin (Utah, New York and Wisconsin, respectively). These workers are isolated and presumably have fewer job opportunities. They therefore are more likely to work hard to keep the job.

Finally, this is an opportunity for Marissa Mayer. She’s gotten good grades before this and seems to be a genuine person. At the same time, the upper echelon of corporate executives are thought to be arrogant. Indeed, their collective image is a bit McClellan-esque. Yahoo shouldn’t equivocate. Mayer should reverse herself and explain that she is trying to get her arms around an awful lot in a short period and made a bad call. If she does, she will end up more popular than ever.

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