Why you should care

Because Yahoo CEO  Marissa Mayer is taking a unusually bold approach when it comes to hiring, and it’s still unclear whether it’s a #winning formula for the company.

Silicon Valley may be booming with startups but the question remains: Can once-fallen Internet giants ever really make a comeback?

AOL has struggled to maintain its relevance in the post-dial-up era, but it recovered a bit of cool when it acquired the Huffington Post. MySpace’s desperate attempts to rejuvenate itself with Justin Timberlake never worked out. And now it’s Yahoo’s turn to prove that reinvention is indeed possible.

With CEO Marissa Mayer at the helm, what’s most interesting is that she hasn’t embraced the in vogue strategy in the Valley — which is to hire a Sheryl Sandberg-type rock star. Instead, Mayer is leaning on the playbook of another one-time Bay Area turnaround: the Oakland Raiders. The idea goes like this: Don’t hire the out-and-out obvious winners. Pick the folks who’ve been cut up a bit and are hungry for a big win.

Color portrait of Marissa

Marissa Mayer

Source Noah Berger/Redux

That football team in the 1970s famously came to prominence not by hiring hotshots, but instead by adding once-dominant players who had been humbled by life’s hard knocks — think Jim Plunkett and Ken Stabler.

Similarly, Mayer is building much of her core team at Yahoo with hungry talent looking to prove themselves anew. Indeed, Mayer herself was effectively demoted before leaving Google to join Yahoo (she had been taken off Google Search). And while the move was a lucrative one for Mayer — to the tune of a $6 million pay package her first year — her personal experiences may well be shaping her unique approach to hiring talent and redefining the purple tech giant.

For example, look at some of Yahoo’s key roles: Mayer’s chief marketing officer, Kathy Savitt, had a failed startup right before joining the company. And Katie Couric — Yahoo’s new “global anchor” — was a one-time television darling who hit one boulder after another in her post-Today show path with CBS Evening News and her now-canceled talk show, Katie.

Falls are powerful motivators to dust oneself off and rise back up again — sometimes to an even higher level.

It is too early to know if Mayer’s team of female Oakland Raiders can pull off a turnaround. But the numbers look promising: The company’s stock price has more than doubled since Mayer became CEO in 2012, and it has made a series of high-profile acquisitions (Summly, Tumblr, Vizify) and might reap serious cash from prior investments (Yahoo has a stake in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which is headed to an IPO).

Mayer’s hiring strategy is also highly unusual for the number of women she’s brought on board in prominent positions — in a Valley that still lags far behind equal representation when it comes to gender. In its recent diversity report, Google admitted that its leadership is just 21 percent women. And Yahoo barely beats its competitor on that metric when its overall leadership is only 23 percent women. However, with Mayer steering the ship as CEO, that imbalance could shift over time. When analyzing venture-backed companies, a Dow Jones VentureSource study suggested that firms with more women on their executive teams are more likely to succeed. Yahoo’s new face in Washington? Tekedra Mawakana, a female attorney who left AOL to serve as Yahoo’s head of global public policy.

takedra in colorful top on white backdrop outdoors

Tekedra Mawakana

Source Melissa Golden

We’ve seen failures turn into successes throughout the course of history. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush lost congressional races long before they took up residence in the White House. Michael Jordan was supposedly cut from his high school basketball team and later rose to become a legend in the sport. Tom Brady? He was the 199th, sixth-round pick in the NFL Draft back in 2000, and today has multiple Super Bowl victories under his belt. Maybe these winners didn’t triumph in spite of their stumbles but rather because of them. Falls are powerful motivators to dust oneself off and rise back up again — sometimes to an even higher level.

If Yahoo emerges from its midlife crisis looking fitter and stronger thanks to Mayer’s leadership strategy, it could have a huge ripple effect on hiring practices in the Valley. Instead of companies looking to be rescued by a superstar like Sheryl Sandberg, more may start searching for a star that’s fallen — but ready to shoot for the heights.

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