Marissa Mayer and Yahoo’s Regression to the Mean

First published July 26, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There is not a lot of overlap between the universes of Gord Hotchkiss and Marissa Mayer, but our orbits have intersected on a few occasions in the past. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Mayer about various aspects of search on a handful of occasions, so it was with some interest that I watched the announcement and subsequent buzz about her appointment as Yahoo CEO.

Much has been said about Mayer’s personal qualifications for the job, and the general consensus is that this is a good thing for Yahoo. If this were a movie, I’m thinking she would score an 82% on the Tomatometer, handily qualifying as “fresh.” Personally, I would agree. Mayer has a razor-sharp (and somewhat intimidating) intellect, a core love for search and an innate sense of what’s right for the user. All of these things will be big plusses for Yahoo. What she hasn’t been tested on is her ability to run a big company. And that’s where things could get interesting.

No doubt Google still imparts its own “halo” effect on anyone who has spent time at the “Plex” in a leadership position. And few have spent as much time there as Mayer, who, as hire number 20, was Google’s first female engineer, logging 13 years with bosses (and hopefully still friends) Page and Brin.  These three tied a tight little knot in the early days of Google, but from the outside, that knot seems to have frayed just a little in the past few years. Mayer’s recent moves in the company have been more lateral than vertical, as later additions to the Google team were promoted above her. Undoubtedly, this was a contributing factor to the parting of the ways with Google.

But how much value does Mayer’s vast inside knowledge of Google and its past successes bring to Yahoo? It must have played a major role in her selection as the new chief Yahooligan. But was she instrumental in the streak of seemingly picture-perfect management calls in the early days of the Internet’s Golden Child? And, even if she were, does it really matter?

Earlier this year, I took part in an open forum on search at an industry conference. Our moderator tossed a ticking time bomb at the panel, in the form of this delicately stated question: “What the #%^&$ is Google doing lately? Have they gone insane?” We each offered our opinions, which ranged in the degree of madness ascribed to Google’s executives. I started my response with this, “I think we tend to downplay the role luck played in the early days of Google. Maybe their luck is just running out.”

There is a much fancier name for the hypothetical situation I described, which is called “regression to the mean.”  In his recent book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” (a HIGHLY recommended read) psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explores how this can lead us to overvalue executive talent when it’s combined with the halo effect. Kahneman even uses Google as an example: “Of course there was a great deal of skill in the Google story, but luck played a more important role in the actual event than it does in the telling of it. And the more luck was involved, the less there is to be learned.”

Regression to the mean simply means that when you take a snapshot in time that represents either exceptionally good or bad performance, subsequent snapshots tend to move closer to the average. And those highs and lows generally involve luck to some extent. So you can poach talent from a company on a hot streak, only to find that it wasn’t the executives responsible for the performance, but simply the planets aligning in a favorable way.

As an ex-CEO of a company, albeit a tiny one, I find it hard to swallow that leadership might not be as important as we think in the fortunes of a company. But I generally find Kahneman to be an incredibly astute observer of human errors in judgment, so I have to resist the urge to go with my own cognitive biases here and trust Kahneman’s research.  He doesn’t say leadership is inconsequential, but he does caution against ignoring the role of timing and sheer luck.

This is also not to downplay the role Marissa Mayer will play in the future of Yahoo.  Somebody has to lead the company, and Mayer is at least as good a choice as anyone else I can think of.

Who knows? Maybe Yahoo’s luck is due to change. In their case, “regression to the mean” means there’s no place to go but up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.