Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer surprises Cal students with fireside chat, shares leadership insight and career experiences

During the week of Sept.11, students in the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series had the honor to learn from Marissa Mayer, former Yahoo CEO and longtime executive at Google. Mayer has been at the helm of some of the most successful products Google has to offer, such as Gmail and Google News. Throughout the lecture, Mayer gave career advice to UC Berkeley undergraduates on how to make the best decisions for their careers and emphasized the importance of mentorship and leadership opportunities.

 

When Marissa Mayer was finishing her masters in computer science at Stanford University, she received job offers from two companies graduates today could only dream of — McKinsey and Google.

However, at the time, Google was an unknown startup with a funny name and McKinsey was an established and respected consulting company. Mayer recalls how even the two business cards couldn’t have been more different: Google’s was printed on a dot matrix printer and featured its original gaudy logo with an exclamation point, while the McKinsey card was printed on 60-pound paper, complete with a professional textured font.

The choice may have seemed easy to most, but Mayer made her decision based on two very specific criteria: where were the smartest people and what job did she feel most unprepared to do.

She chose to work at Google. They had the smartest people, but more importantly, it was an ambitious venture all but doomed to fail, something Mayer said she was definitely not prepared for.

But as we now know, Google has gone on to change the way the world uses technology, and Mayer played a huge part in that. During a fireside chat given to students in the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series, Mayer touched upon the lessons and experiences she has garnered throughout her successful career, such as her philosophy on leadership and decision-making as well as how she predicted the cupcake boom in the early 2000s.

On Decision-making

At the beginning of the talk, Mayer recapped some of the life-altering decisions she has made over the years: moving to California from Wisconsin, changing her career path from medicine to computer science, joining Google, leaving Google for Yahoo, and others. Each one of these decisions left Mayer with a sinking feeling in her stomach, but she carried through with them anyway.

That being said, Mayer added that she was constantly re-evaluating her options. There was a time she wanted to leave Google to go pursue a career at McKinsey’s UK office, and another time she wanted to leave to pursue an MBA at Stanford’s business school. But with each re-evaluation, she ended up deciding to stay at Google.

Mayer stayed during those times of uncertainty because of some advice given to her by an old college friend: Don’t focus on choosing the best option, focus on making it the best option.

“I think that when you make a decision, you need to commit to it and give it a chance to be successful over time,” Mayer said. “Sometimes if you doubt yourself too much, you’ll ultimately cause failure due to that indecision.”

And even if the venture ends up failing, Mayer added, you usually learn enough along the way to make it worth your while.

On Leadership and Mentorship

Over the years, Mayer has managed thousands of employees and has learned a lot about what it means to be a leader, in part because she has had great leaders and mentors to guide her.

Mayer mentioned during the chat that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his motto “Leadership is listening, leadership is defense” in particular has shaped how she approaches her role as a leader.

When she first became CEO of Yahoo, Mayer explained that everyone was expecting her to call them into a meeting and roll-out a new strategy plan on how to fix Yahoo, but Mayer had no intention of doing that.

“If the solution to Yahoo’s issues were obvious, someone would have fixed them already,” Mayer said in reference to the multitude of CEOs brought in before her to try to turn the company around. Instead, Mayer created her strategy after first spending a couple of months talking to her employees and observing the inner-workings of Yahoo.

In fact, Mayer finds mentorship and leadership training to be so valuable that in 2002, while she was a high-up executive at Google, she developed the Associate Product Manager (APM) program. Essentially, Mayer would hire recent graduates, give them huge responsibility under the supervision of a selected mentor, and then sit back and watch to see how they would challenge themselves to rise to the occasion. The program was a huge success and went on to give the likes of Brian Rakowski, now VP of the Google Chrome operation, and Wesley Chan, the founder of Google Voice and Google Ventures, their starts.

“I call them my kids, and they really are. We have a great relationship and I’m really proud of them. And there is no question I’ve gotten just as much if not more out of the program than they have,” Mayer said.

As the talk came to a close, Mayer gave the audience the advice she gives to all of her mentees just starting out their careers. While you should look to work with the smartest people you can find and do something that you don’t feel totally prepared to do, Mayer said, you should also try to find a job where you feel at home with the people and like you’re going to get as much out of the job as you put in.

For Mayer, Google was her home and she definitely got just as much out of her role there as she put in, scrappy business cards and all.

 

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