Return of the Peanut Butter Man: A Lesson in How to Influence Your Top Leaders

Posted 09.09.2009

Garlinghouse No, I’m not talking about some schlocky movie that didn’t make it into theatres this summer.  I’m talking about Brad Garlinghouse, a former Yahoo Senior Vice President who was hired this week to be a key part of the leadership team charged with spinning AOL out of Time Warner over the next year. For fans of memorable business communication, Garlinghouse is best known as the author, in 2006, of a memo to the top executives at Yahoo that came to be known as “the peanut butter manifesto.” 

Among other points in the manifesto, Garlinghouse wrote:

“I've heard our strategy described as spreading peanut butter across the myriad opportunities that continue to evolve in the online world. The result: a thin layer of investment spread across everything we do and thus we focus on nothing in particular.

I hate peanut butter. We all should”

His memo, which was eventually featured in a front page article in the Wall Street Journal, was a clarion call for Yahoo to get its act together and recapture its leadership position in the Internet space. That hasn’t happened yet (and may never happen), but the memo set off a chain of events which led to a change in top leadership and the implementation of many of the strategies that Garlinghouse wrote about.

So, as Garlinghouse joins AOL to help lead what is a combination of a turnaround and a start-up, I thought it was worth taking a look at the peanut butter manifesto to see what we can learn about how leaders can influence their bosses through highly effective communications. Here are a few takeaways:

Be Credible: If you’re going to push top leadership for a change, you have to have the credibility for them to take you seriously. Garlinghouse had established his through his past performance and for his clear commitment to and passion for Yahoo. (The guy shaved a Y in the back of his haircut at one point.) He opens his memo by restating his passion and commitment.

Keep It Simple: Garlinghouse writes in clear, conversational language. No 25 cent words and no industry jargon. His sentences are short. He laid out his diagnosis of Yahoo’s problems in three short paragraphs with bold face headlines.

Be Visual: What made Garlinghouse’s memo memorable was the visual image of peanut butter being spread too thin. Most everyone gets that metaphor because most everyone has had the experience of running out of peanut butter before the bread is covered. Use simple metaphors to make your points.  People will remember what you’re saying because you’re getting more of their senses engaged.

Make Sense: When Garlinghouse moved to his call to action, he kept it to three simple points with a bit of detail on each:

1.    Focus the vision
2.    Restore accountability and clarity of ownership
3.    Execute a radical reorganization

When I read his memo for the first time, I immediately got his points and his plan even though my closest experience with Yahoo had been using it for some list serve groups I belong to.  His action plan completely matched up with his diagnosis earlier in the memo.  It hung together and it made sense.

Take the Risk: It would have been easy for Garlinghouse to do what a lot of managers do which is to gripe off line about the “obvious” problems that need to be fixed without ever actually calling the issues out and offering a plan to fix them. Doing that requires taking the risk that top leadership may not appreciate what you have to say. But if you don’t say it, who will?  Someone told me once that what doesn’t get said, doesn’t get heard. If your motivations are for the greater good, take the risk and say it.  You might be the catalyst the organization was waiting for.

Based on your experience or observation, what advice do you have for leaders trying to influence the top of the house?