If you somehow missed it, a media frenzy erupted after Yahoo announced that it will bring telecommuters home to the office.

Much of the noise came from the working-mom contingent upset at Marissa Mayer, a new mother and CEO in charge of bringing Yahoo back to life. However, for leaders to learn the true lessons of this brouhaha, we have to look beneath the headlines.

While I don’t hold Mayer accountable for representing the interests of all working moms, it’s fair to hold her accountable for shaping Yahoo’s corporate culture, which is what the move is intended to do. Yahoo’s policy memo made an attempt to explain that ending telecommuting is balanced by other policies designed to give employees perks and streamline the organization.

However, the memo’s greatest irony — which explains perhaps better than any other reason this move might have been necessary — are the words blazing across the top of the leaked memo: “DO NOT FORWARD.”

Maybe the leak was the result of one or two disgruntled employees — The New York Times reported that the memo was aimed at 200 employees — but it still speaks to a culture in need of tightening up.

Yahoo has been tight-lipped about the memo, saying only that the policy isn’t an industry referendum on work-at-home policies. However, sifting through the media-explosion fallout, it’s clear that this is one of many moves by Mayer to bring a more focused corporate culture to Yahoo. That said, it seems pretty ham-fisted. Looking at the memo from the point of view of corporate-culture design, here are some insights that other companies might want to emulate — or not.

Three things Yahoo is doing right

  1. Creating a comprehensive plan. This policy is not an isolated event. Mayer has been making changes for months designed to make Yahoo a more pleasant place to work and to bring good vibes back.
  2. Taking a stand. One reason corporate culture is too often unintentional is that leaders are afraid of upsetting people. In designing any culture change, you want your most valuable employees to be happy, motivated and looking forward to coming to work every day. When you take a stand that motivates those employees, it’s going to demotivate others who like the way things are. Putting a stake in the ground — done well — accomplishes exactly this. Only Yahoo will know whether this move does the trick, but early signs say maybe it has, because some employees seem to be defending the move.
  3. Communicating privately before you communicate publicly. According to the memo, “If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps.” This is the right thing to do. Culture creation by e-mail is a bad idea. Ultimately, the culture you are designing is maintained and evolved by human interaction. If corporate culture were a physical structure, employees are the reinforcing infrastructure in between the foundation (leadership behavior) and the facade (facilities, brand imagery, media). So creating your culture person to person builds in strength from the beginning.

Three things Yahoo is doing wrong (maybe)

  1. Not showing sensitivity for people who might get stuck in the middle. If this policy is aimed only at 200 people, or even if it isn’t, it clearly could mean major change for people who’ve built a life around the old policy — a life that affects others in their personal and family networks. The reason the memo created such a media firestorm is that it is unqualified and makes no mention of these complications.
  2. Not using a culture-design memo to reinforce values. The memo speaks of communication and collaboration, but by not addressing major values behind work-at-home policies — respect for employees as whole people and creativity — Yahoo missed an opportunity to show how it will address such values in the future. This left the company open for criticism from employees and, as we’ve seen, everyone else, including prospective employees. Perhaps the company doesn’t value these things, in which case, maybe the memo was fine and the criticism deserved.
  3. Not using a culture-design initiative to connect internal and external brands. One of the reasons many outsiders were shocked by the memo is that the broader market associates Silicon Valley with innovative employee policies. Observers see the Yahoo move as out of step with what a cutting-edge tech company would do. While I don’t think this tempest in the media teapot is going to damage Yahoo’s long-term brand any more than its struggling stock price, the company’s public relations team missed a golden opportunity to show how its culture-design effort is related to, and underpins, its brand and market strategy. Tying internal- and external-brand strategies, including building the type of consistency that can turn leaks into media opportunities, is an innovative strategy in itself. Perhaps Yahoo is too busy trying to get its internal house in order to think much about such opportunities, but for the rest of us, it’s a good case study of what might have been.

I say “maybe” these issues were mistakes and lost opportunities for Yahoo because the most important parts of culture change will be visible only inside Yahoo, to be felt by employees. That’s where real culture change takes place, and that’s where the ultimate measure of success will be judged.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business culture by design that integrates lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.

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