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Would your board employ a young, female, pregnant CEO?

Aug 06, 2012 Business Daily, Leadership

“Marissa Mayer, the Google (GOOG) executive who today was named Yahoo’s (YHOO) new chief executive, is pregnant.
Mayer told Fortune exclusively that her first child is due October 7. It’s a boy!
…Mayer first disclosed to the Yahoo board that she is pregnant in late June, in a meeting with Michael Wolf, a member of the board’s four-person CEO search committee. A meeting with the search committee followed, and then Mayer met with the full board last Wednesday. None of the Yahoo directors, she says, revealed any concern about hiring a pregnant chief executive. “They showed their evolved thinking,” says Mayer, who got the phone call last Thursday that she was the board’s choice to be CEO.”

Fortune (July 16, 2012)

The new CEO of Yahoo is young. She’s female. She’s pregnant. And none of that matters to those who gave her the job. Three cheers for a rapidly changing world.

Think about it. Not too long ago, no chief executive of any major public corporation would be a woman. Those few who made it to the top more recently would certainly not be young. And pregnant? Don’t even go there…

The world is in a state of rapid flux. Technology is disruptive, and consumers have taken power. Elaborate five-year strategic plans are mostly clogging waste-bins. Strategy is now more about how nimble you are at dancing on a floor that keeps undulating unexpectedly. Your core customers today are your competitor’s groupies tomorrow. More dominant corporations have fallen in the recent past than in any time in history.

In such a world, you are going to have to rethink your tried-and-tested ideas about who should lead, and why. Yahoo did. Full marks to them.

Most boards of directors have some way to go. Listen in on a typical traditional board concluding the search for a new CEO…

“A woman, you say? No, no. They’re too emotional. Can’t take tough decisions. Can’t think logically. Let’s get a man.”

“A young woman, you say? No, no. Will distract everyone. There will be affairs and pregnancies and complications. And what has she seen of the world? Ten years experience is not enough. Let’s get a middle-aged man.”

“A pregnant young woman, you say? Absolutely out of the question. She’ll go off to deliver just as she’s settling into the job? Madness. She’ll have mood swings and hormonal changes. She might not come back. She’ll want creches and time off. There’ll be nappies everywhere. No, no, let’s get a man. An old man, like us.”

(Because old men, after all, have been taking great decisions and building world-beating, long-lasting corporations – right? Ahem…)

Let’s put that world of cozy assumptions and lazy platitudes behind us, folks. When you look for a leader now, you’d better be looking for the best person to do the job, period. You’d better stop looking for candidates in your own image, because your own image is in fact the problem. You’d better look for somebody who thrives in today’s world, not yesterday’s. You’d better look for someone who can innovate, because plans A through to D are already invalid.

I have no idea whether Ms Mayer will be a success at Yahoo. That company is in a lot of trouble, and has not had a clear strategy or positioning for years. But kudos to its board for making a brave choice, and for raising the bar for others. Yes, women do bear children, and they do take raising them more seriously than most men do. But do give them the choice regarding their priorities. Some will devote themselves to motherhood; others to their careers. Increasingly, they will do both. Let them decide, and let a world constructed by men and for men not prevent these choices being made.

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