, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Last week, Yahoo appointed their 5th CEO in 5 years. They have chosen an outstanding candidate. Two degrees in Computer Science from Stanford, glittering, revered career with Google and value backed-up with the fact that at just 37 years old, the new CEOs remuneration will be significantly in excess of $1million per month.

As you’d expect, the appointment has hit the headline….more public vilification for overpaid CEOs then?  No.  There are two factors that have outweighed even the might of the Shareholder Spring…..

The new CEO is Female.

She’s 6 months pregnant.

The public reaction to Marissa Mayer’s appointment was initially very polite. Congratulations on her impending arrival (the little boy, due in October, 3 months after taking the helm at the beleaguered Tech group) and slightly less so on her own ‘arrival’ as a Fortune 500 CEO; an appointment that also makes her the youngest current Fortune 500 CEO. Then people’s real colours came out.

Everyone is an expert when it comes to Recruitment
Everyone is an expert when it comes to Executive Pay
….and Everyone is an expert on bringing up children

Combine the three, and Marissa is at the butt end of everyone’s advice, and it seems at the butt end of everyone’s judgement.

Let’s get this clear from the start – I think it’s a great hire.

Having faced huge criticism from the business fraternity (although clearly not the board at Yahoo who selected her) for her ‘naivety’ in thinking she could run a Fortune 500 business and manage soiled nappies together (I won’t enter into the parallels that could be drawn…) she truthfully and defensively announced that she would be an effective working mother, taking just a few weeks maternity leave before returning to work, and working remotely throughout much, if not most of that leave.

That in turn saw the anger of both the feminist fraternity and the traditionalist fraternity who decided that was a bad example for anyone even thinking of having children. Yahoo were next in the firing line, accused of merely going for the PR angle of hiring an expectant mother, ignoring Melissa’s obvious credentials.

Marissa can’t win, and certainly can’t appease any more than a small fraction of people. She has had her entire life motivation questioned beyond the level that anyone should, when all she is doing is pursuing a career (and doing so very successfully).

She is a great example for working mothers (who a Stanford University study calculated were 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted and would be offered $11,000 less in salary), but has anyone thought that perhaps she just wants to lead and reverse the fortunes of one of the world’s largest Tech businesses and not become a ‘vital spokesperson’ just because she happens to be pregnant?

Even former director for policy planning at the US state department has come out and had a go criticising Marissa’s suggestion of working throughout her maternity (the so-called 4th Trimester) claiming it was breeding a poor workplace culture obsessed with long-hours and ‘face-time’.

Then of course you have the worst criticism possible; The Ignorant. The ‘We know best’. The World’s authority on being a parent……The Super-Mum.  These are a very similar breed to the revolting shareholders. They’ve had some experience (although often not), read a few blogs and now feel perfectly able to critique everyone else’s actions.

The number of open letters and blogs that have been penned by motherhood champions, most of whom have no grasp on what it takes to be a Fortune 500 CEO, or what personality of person strives as hard as Marissa to attain that level, by the age of 37. They sit in their self-described perfect motherhood guise, deriding the professional mums; the mums that regularly go to the gym; the mums who dare to take time away from the child to at least try and look after themselves; scoff at mums that have any aspirations beyond sitting in crappy coffee shops with processed sugar ‘nutrition’ along with other hyper-competitive super-mums and generally pour scorn on any new mum who dares to consider their own well-being even alongside that of their child.

…..“They must be weird”, “Shouldn’t have had children” etc – usually said in-between mouthfuls of low-fat triple chocolate muffin and a large caramel hot-chocolate (with whip) ….and as a respite from the discussion about how difficult it is to shift baby weight.

Yet all these people feel perfectly placed to advise one of the world’s brightest humans (note, not just world’s brightest women) on how she should juggle her life as a Fortune 500 CEO and a mum. Telling her to have more maternity leave (maybe she doesn’t want to?), telling her not to be afraid of talking about work life balance (Maybe she has? Maybe she’s happy with it?), telling her there will be a rush of emotions as she gives birth…. (really?) etc.  Forgetting that this immensely bright person isn’t stupid and will have considered a LOT of things already.

I have witnessed firsthand what a woman can and can’t do when she has just had a baby. My daughter was born 6 weeks early and 4 days after we’d moved house. She nearly died when she was less than a week old and the correction of that caused her to be really quite ill for several months. It was a VERY trying time – but my wife is very intelligent, as am I. Accordingly we surrounded ourselves with similarly intelligent/experienced people and not only managed, but did well. The backbone of that whole period (and the factor that saved our daughter’s life) was the gut instinct of my wife; my daughter’s mum. “Mum knows best”.

These super-mums are as naive as the professional detractors. Marissa is bright, really bright. She has made a career out of exceptional planning and ability to cope with whatever has been thrown at her in an immensely fast paced, changeable environment – ok, I again have seen firsthand that nothing truly prepares you for parenthood, and the change that it suddenly brings on your life, but she is more than capable of coping than most.

From a practical perspective, Marissa already has a net worth reputed to be in the region of $300m, so she doesn’t need to work. (sound familiar? see Replacing Bob Diamond Blog). Even her base salary of $1m per month will mean she is nothing like as stressed a new mother as most, she will be in a position to employ an army of assistants to cater for every whim, child based or otherwise. These same people will call that cheating. I call it well organised, observed by the envious.

So does this mean we should all employ pregnant women? No. We should all employ the best person for the role, and the person with the best attitude.  Marissa has it, without question. But do businesses that go above and beyond for women (and men) entering parenthood really reap the rewards? Jaguar LandRover has long since been very vocal that it gives every pregnant employee full wages for a year whilst on maternity leave. That is hugely commendable, but does it really benefit the business? Certainly not as much as recruiting the best people – people with the best attitude would do.

Rightly or wrongly, women who have several extended periods away from work suffer on the route to the boardroom. Sylvia Ann Hewlett conducted a study and found that in countries where women got a less generous maternity allowance, there were a far greater number of women on boards of directors. Her research also showed that a woman who took more than 2 years off lost 18% of her earning power, whereas 6 months away had no effect on earnings whatsoever.

But the same thing happens to men who choose to take more than 12 months off from the workplace, this is not a female centric issue.

Part of Hewlett’s findings will be skewed by those mothers who choose to take a lower employment status as part of a plan to spend time with their children – but equally, we have to respect those that have a different desire, and super-mum has to respect that. Career advancement is obviously not the be-all-and-end-all for all those entering motherhood, but it is important to respect that for some, like with many men, it is a very important component.

Despite Marissa being only the 20th female Fortune 500 CEO, and despite the proof that a mixed board can have great impact on financial performance, it is easy to see why women are dissuaded from being career ambitious. When even the feminist and ‘mum’ movements denigrate the rise of someone with Marissa’s capability, it will do more harm to female corporate aspirations than anything, as will the negativity that is surrounding her ability to lead Yahoo.

It has been said that female CEOs sit on a glass cliff. Having smashed through the (imaginary?) glass ceiling, they find themselves in a very precarious position, usually a position that leaves them more likely to take blame for lower than expected company performance, less likely to claim credit for better. A UK survey (here) highlighted that appointing a female CEO typically sparked an increase in share price after appointment. And yet such an appointment is still criticised.

Female leaders need to be strong, but they need to not try and be Men. Men displaying ‘balls’ are revered, celebrated and declared as strong leaders. Women who do likewise lay open to immense criticism, yet some of the best leaders are women.

Margaret Thatcher; irrespective of your views on her politics and policies, was arguably the best leader this country has had. The same occurs in business. My pal Theo Paphitis has been criticised for highlighting the strength of WHSmith’s Kate Swann (in preference to self-styled retail expert Mary Portas), yet it is Kate that has led her business to be profitable and survived when everyone said it wouldn’t.

Marissa is an outlier – her actions are making salacious headlines, but she is the capable CEO; 99.9% of her detractors are not. Her situation is such that these detractors are unable to comment from a point of intelligence. Her position of ultimate choice in her return to work is being as controlled and planned as her immensely impressive career.

Others are less fortunate. Robyn Roche-Paull, the military author of the powerful book “Breastfeeding in Combat Boots” tells her story of going back to work after six weeks after giving birth to her son, simply because it was required. When her son wouldn’t take a bottle, she co-slept with him so he could nurse all night and sleep all day while she was at work. If that doesn’t bring a lump to your throat I would check your heart is beating.

Robyn was revered for being a warrior, not in the military sense, in the ‘mum’ sense. She did what needed to be done. Is there a better raison-d’être for a CEO?

Marissa Mayer will be an awesome CEO. Not because she is a woman, not because she is pregnant…..simply because, as with most leaders, she is the best Man for the job.