Monday, 10 March 2014

Can you simply buy talent?

Shortly after Marissa Mayer stepped into the breach at Yahoo, she stoked controversy by cancelling the company's  'work from home' policy. At the time many predicted that this clamp-down would result in a mass exodus of talent to competitors such as Facebook and Google or any of the many startups it shared Silicon Valley with.

Last week, Ken Goldman, Yahoo's chief financial officer declared that Yahoo had won the war for talent (speaking at a Morgan Stanley investor conference in San Francisco).

However, tellingly, they had done so by simply buying talent. Yahoo bought 37 companies, and their staff, since Mayer took over. And although Yahoo received an impressive 340,000 job applications in 2013, career site Glassdoor reported that it had to pay the 3rd highest wages in Silicon Valley in order to do so.

However, it is not clear to me that simply buying talent is a sustainable strategy. Despite its proclaimed victory, Yahoo failed to join the 15 other Silicon Valley firms on Glassdoor's 50 best places to work list. Most of the companies acquired were early stage startups whose engineers might be more interested in moving on to their next projects as soon as their earn-out periods expire. And whilst high salaries might attract large numbers of job applicants research suggests pay is a hygiene factor which is seldom able to overcome more fundamental dissatisfaction with working conditions and culture.

My personal view is that attracting and retaining top talent requires more than deep pockets - it requires visionary leadership and a strategy that people can get behind. As Yahoo's revenues continue to decline, it remains far from clear that Mayer has delivered that yet.