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Ann Skeet

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Marissa Mayer: I Give You Permission

Posted: 10/05/2012 12:25 pm

Dear Marissa,

I am writing to give you permission, just as it was given to me. You haven't asked for it, and perhaps you are not even aware that you need it. But, because it's National Work and Family month, and you recently gave birth of your first child, I suspect you might need some -- permission that is.

It's not really mine to give and, to be honest, I'm only passing along that which was given to me by a wise, experienced leader, Rose Jacobs Gibson. Rose is a San Mateo, CA county supervisor who will term out of office after twelve years at the end of this year.

Rose was a participant in a leadership and civic engagement program offered by the American Leadership Forum-Silicon Valley (ALF), known for gathering a diverse, influential class of leaders together annually for a one-year fellowship program. I was the organization's new CEO, fresh from my decade as an executive at the San Jose Mercury News and fellow of the ALF myself AND expecting my first child in May 2001.

Central to the one-year ALF fellowship experience is a six-day camping trip held each July in the Las Plumas National Forest north of Tahoe. Rose had participated in the trip with the first class of fellows I led as ALF's CEO the year before. In spring of 2001, I had been regularly sharing with her leadership cohort (which included the Bishop of our Catholic dioceses, the head of the San Jose Sharks organization, the CEO of the Packard Foundation and an NFL Football star), as their annual program wound down, that it was my intent to go on the next July camping trip with the next ALF class just about to begin. The trip would occur about seven or eight weeks after the birth of my baby, due in mid-May.

I mentioned this intent often that spring, though as I think about it now, I was often vague about key details -- such as whether or not I would be bringing the baby with me. I had read all the baby books, planned on breastfeeding and thought there was nothing incongruent about leading a group of established leaders on a six-day hike and leadership program with my nursing, eight-week old infant. I am sure there are women reading this who still don't see anything incongruent about that and even some number who did something similar early in their first child's life.

But after hearing my plan shared at ALF function after function throughout that spring, Rose asked if she could talk to me at one such function. We stepped aside from the always-chatty executives. Rose put a hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, "I give you permission."

"For what?" I asked, quite naturally.

And then she said words I'll never forget:

For whatever you need. For whatever the baby needs. For whatever you decide AFTER you have the baby. Maybe you will take the baby camping and lead the class on the trip just like you did last year. But maybe you won't want to. Maybe once the baby comes you will want to just sit and hold the baby. Maybe the baby will need special attention. Maybe you will.

You might feel a little stuck, though, since you've told us all you are going on the trip. After you have the baby, should you find yourself wavering and just wanting to stay home with the baby, then it will be important for you to remember that I gave you permission. You can do that. You are going to be the baby's mother and you can do whatever is best for the baby.

I am pretty sure I smiled at her in a way that was perhaps a tad patronizing. She smiled at me too, but was not at all patronizing. She well understood how it all looked on one side of having the baby and what the reality might be on the other. Her real gift to me was to open my mind to the idea that I wouldn't really know what I wanted or the baby needed, until I had the baby.

Weeks later, as I was making arrangements for others to lead the trip in my place, I found myself referencing Rose's permission as if I truly needed to justify my decision. From time to time, I have passed it along, most recently to my own doctor, about to deliver her third boy, sure she would be back at work full time in 11 weeks. I gave her permission to change her mind.

And, so, Marissa Mayer, I give you permission. Rose's permission in fact. I might have been giving it to you in person had I joined Google in 1999 when I had the chance to do so. Having chosen instead to run a nonprofit in search of a better work/life balance for my newly minted family (though I did not find that balance: running a nonprofit is like running a start-up but with few of the resources and higher expectations).

Because I didn't really find that balance, I think over the years I have slowly learned what Rose was really trying to tell me. She was trying to tell me that I wouldn't find the balance. That I might just have to create it myself.

Now that your child has arrived, Marissa, and you might learn that you are a woman who needs more time with him that you originally thought, or he needs more care than originally expected. If 1-2 two weeks of official maternity leave doesn't feel right now, I give you permission to change your mind. To lengthen your maternity leave. Work from home. Hire a phantom CEO for a while. Heck, you even change your mind about being a CEO at all.

I had a baby girl that May 2001. I think often of what advice I should be giving her for her future and what example my own career path will offer her when she goes down this path. I know the one thing I will offer her when she has her first child is permission. Permission to do whatever is best for the baby and for her, regardless of what she has planned or said before she gave birth.

I offer blessings to you and your family, Marissa Mayer. You have set a great example for women, girls, executives and board members by choosing to accept the offer to lead Yahoo out if its current strategic mire. You are now a first-time mother, a truly remarkable, unimaginable experience. I wish nothing but the best for you in your career, civic and personal life and nothing but the best for Yahoo.

And, along with Rose, I give you permission to do whatever you and your family need to do to take care of you and your family. I hope you will pass it along.


Ann Skeet is a leadership and strategy consultant. She has served as the Vice-President of Marketing for the San Jose Mercury News during its decade of online product development in the '90s, as the CEO of American Leadership-Silicon Valley and as President of Notre Dame High School in San Jose, CA. Ann holds and MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BA in economics from Bucknell University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She lives with her two children and husband in San Jose.

 
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