Can Working From Home Work? Marissa Mayer Doesn’t Think So.

Professional women talk about standing on the shoulders of those who came before, or walking in the footsteps of powerful mentors. So, when a role model steps off the usual path, it rankles. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer probably didn’t anticipate that her ban on working from home would strike such a nerve. (And if you’re wondering if things would be different if the edict had come from a man….well, that’s an interesting question.)

But Mayer’s not only not a man, she’s the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, one of very few top-500 women CEOs, and one who happens to have given birth five months ago. So when the memo went out announcing the policy as being in the interest of  “collaboration and communication,” it launched a thousand water cooler conversations and countless blog posts. Couple that with Mayer’s recent claim that she wouldn’t call herself a feminist, and you have a recipe for a culture war.

But does the tempest over work/life balance really warrant all the outrage? From where I sit, the uproar is really more about class than gender politics, though there’s a little something for everyone here. (Working dads are offended at being left out of the brouhaha, as are childless workers and others.)

One reason for the backlash is that Mayer paid to have a nursery built next to her office so that she could be with her infant son, a perq that few working women enjoy. And the now-infamous work-at-home ban comes on the heels of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s  call-to-action for professional women to step up in the face of workplace challenges instead of stepping back.  The “leaning in” advocated by Sandberg has been belittled by some as a luxury afforded to a tiny club of uberprivileged women.

My own experience is that working at home can work, and like anything else, it has limits. But the controversy makes me wonder if flextime has been oversold or occasionally abused. Maybe the pendulum is swinging back because some businesses have gone too far in letting staff set their own hours, or they haven’t set the right goals or metrics.

So, what’s the secret to success for flexible worktime? I was pondering this in terms of my own experience when a sound bite from a WNYC radio commentary crystallized it for me. It was a conversation about the desirable qualities of a successful home-based staffer.

A sense of urgency.

There are many attributes that make up a superior professional, and most of them are the same for home-based workers. But this one is particularly important for staff who aren’t in the office every day.
Yahoo insiders say that this pressing sense of mission has been absent among many home-based workers at the company. I have no idea if that’s the case, but its importance rings true for me. It’s not the only quality, but as the owner of a professional service business, I’ve found that a healthy sense of urgency, coupled with a burning desire to do right for clients, is the X factor for most successful agency staff, whether they work at home, in the office, or anywhere in between.

Whether she likes it or not, Mayer’s every move is symbolic. And though some professional women feel betrayed by her move, let’s face it, we’re not walking in her Stuart Weitzmans. So, I say, go girl. Do what’s needed to turn the ship around, and the rest of us will cheer you on, then make our own decisions about what works for us.

Crisis Management: When The Crisis Is The CEO

It’s hard out there for a CEO.

Recently, we witnessed a week’s worth of drip-drip-drip coverage about Yahoo chief Scott Thompson’s resume. The gaffe culminated in Thompson’s resignation after only four months on the job. But the controversy, on the surface, wasn’t about whether he’d faked an advanced degree, or falsely claimed Ivy League credentials. No, this was about his undergraduate major.

The headline-making departure last month was that of Best Buy chief Brian Dunn. Maybe it wasn’t surprising, but it was breathtakingly abrupt, amid unsavory and unsettling rumors of “improper conduct.”

Granted, each of these, and other “CEOs behaving badly” situations was really about company performance. And in Thompson’s case, the growing crisis wasn’t handled well. But it’s obvious that the stakes are higher than ever for the head guy. Controversy over executive pay, diminishing public confidence, and the news cycle have conspired to make even seemingly trivial missteps a big story.

The implications of the new, more perilous chief executive role aren’t lost on those who recruit and install the top guns, or on professional communicators. Corporate boards will redouble efforts to troubleshoot potential problems in advance. And it’s only right that chief executive prospects should be vetted with the zeal and rigor of (most) presidential candidates. Every weakness, peccadillo, or hint of scandal can, and will, come out.

At a time when a strong, communications-savvy CEO is more needed than ever, corporate strategists and PR specialists will become even more cautious about putting the head guy out there. A deep and visible executive bench is a strong communications strategy, and, these days, good risk management. But it’s more likely that access to the executive team will simply become scarcer for journalists.

The bottom line, of course, is that most of the responsibility lies with the chief executive. The occupant of the corner office needs to acknowledge his/her shortcomings, seek the best advice from those outside the inner circle, and be aware of when a problem or crisis has grown beyond their capability to address it. A terrific example of the “new” CEO who actively seeks counsel around his own leadership development is that of Mark Zuckerberg, as detailed in a recent New York Times piece. Yet, Zuckerberg, who will be 28 next week, is an anomaly even for a technology company.

The imperial CEO is long dead, and well he should be. And maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the guys who can generally pull a ripcord on a golden parachute and go home to a fat bank account. But it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far from the command-and-control days. The margin for error is so thin that you have to ask yourself, at some point, who’s going to want this job? When accountability turns into scapegoating, it’s a losing proposition for everyone.

Why Do PR People Lie?

The latest PR war between tech blog Boy Genius Report and Apple has ignited some pretty harsh accusations, including charges that Apple’s PR is lying about emails BGR claims were sent by Steve Jobs. For me, the outcome of the drama isn’t important, except as it affects the reputation of those of us who earn a living doing public relations.

Among all the things we’ve been called, the most stinging may be that PR people are professional liars. There’s that ten-year-old PR Week survey in which 25% of PR pros admitted to lying on the job. Ugh – and those are the liars who’re telling the truth! The Boy Genius flap reminded me of Newsweek reporter (and fake Steve Jobs blogger) Dan Lyons’ charges that Yahoo’s PR team were “lying sacks of s–t” for misinforming him about CEO Jerry Yang’s plans to step down. More recently, there was Erick Schonfeld’s evisceration of AOL’s communications chief for denying a rumor about an executive departure that was later proven true.

So, do PR people really need to lie to hang onto their jobs? True, sometimes a corporate spokesperson has to hide behind a technicality, or split hairs to avoid premature disclosure of material news. But, an outright fabrication?  It doesn’t make sense. Why lie when you can usually fail to return calls or emails?  Where’s the sense in making a public statement that’s proven untrue mere days later?

There’s another explanation, of course. When there’s a major development afoot, the PR person is sometimes the last to know. I’d argue that in many of the high-profile disputes about truth in public relations, the communications officers in question weren’t lying, at least not consciously. They actually didn’t know what was going on, because they weren’t told.

I believe it because I’ve been there. Even at large companies with plenty of PR savvy, the communications staff is sometimes the last to know. An agency relationship is more removed, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve read important client news in the press, only to be told by the client that they got the news at the last minute….or not at all. We joke about it, but it’s not a laughing matter.

Is it that we can’t handle the truth? Is the PR team thought of as the clean-up crew, helping with damage control after the fact? Are we viewed as too cozy with the press to be trusted? A somewhat kinder explanation is that keeping PR in the dark offers deniability later. In any case, it’s a credibility-killer. And, it’s a sorry situation when your best defense is that you’re out of the loop.

The Boy Genius-Apple dispute might be semantics. But, in many cases, the “liar” label is a symptom of a more frequent and therefore more disturbing issue –  that senior PR officers don’t always have the confidence of top management when the big news is breaking. Which leads to the frustrating, Catch-22 question. How does PR offer quality counsel and effectively manage public and stakeholder communications if we’re in the dark? Yet, how do we gain that “seat at the table” without the credibility that honest counsel inspires?