Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer Know Who's the Boss

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Meet the new boss in Silicon Valley, not the same as the old boss -- by any stretch of the imagination.

She's smart, assertive, strong, confident and willing to shake things up in a big way. Oh, right -- and the new boss just happens to be a woman.

Facebook (NASDAQ: FB  ) Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo! (NASDAQ: YHOO  ) Chief Executive Marissa Mayer are putting their personal stamps on Silicon Valley, corporate America, and the ever-thorny issue of feminism in the business world.

Whether you like or loathe them -- or even care one whit about their gender -- nobody can deny their far-reaching influence on the zeitgeist.

And as the way we look at business has increasingly spilled over to how we appreciate popular culture, Sandberg and Mayer are occupying elevated places in our society. As amateur historians and sociologists, we don't regard either of them as merely old-fashioned executives who are tasked with the responsibility of enhancing a corporation's profits.

Sandberg and Mayer have demonstrated in full that each is willing -- and eager, for that matter -- to go against the grain and publicly make unpopular proclamations.

Sandberg, the No. 2 Facebook official and the author of the provocative best-seller Lean In, challenges businesswomen to act more assertively when they engage in salary negotiations than they have ever done before.

Meanwhile, Mayer demanded that her colleagues at Yahoo! suspend the time-honored, rather liberal Silicon Valley practice of working from home whenever they felt like it. Arguing that productivity would increase if colleagues spent more time talking and interacting with one another face to face, Mayer ordered her charges to work in their designated offices.

Now, neither decision is likely to turn the world upside down on its own. But that isn't the point. What really matters is that Sandberg and Mayer made the tough calls.

It is immensely significant that Mayer and Sandberg are showing that they are capable of presenting strong leadership. They both display what shareholders and employees alike should respect in top management: independent thinking by people capable of making tough, potentially unpopular decisions.

Sandberg and Mayer are demanding that women -- and men -- be accountable. Sandberg's declaration is likely to affect men in the workplace every bit as much as it might touch women. If a large number of women embrace Sandberg's suggestion -- that they get what should be coming to them -- then men will feel the brunt of their new negotiating posture.

But they will have to become accustomed to sitting across the negotiating table from a new breed of female colleague, one who will demand the money she has always been entitled to.

Whether Mayer is right or wrong in asserting that an employee's, and therefore a company's, productivity will go up by having people work in-house, is not the issue. She's setting the tone at Yahoo!, a company that sorely needs some discipline.

Anybody who has followed Yahoo! in recent years has seen an operation that has never quite settled on a coherent strategy for long. Executives have come and gone, sometimes amid great public scrutiny. This has further weakened Yahoo!'s image, especially on Wall Street, where the stock pickers look more intently for reasons to dislike a stock than for those to approve of it.

The executives and staffers should welcome Mayer's tough talk -- if a polite but firm request to work in your office should even count as "tough talk."

Only in Silicon Valley, right?

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