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Marissa can parent however she wants—as long as she sends one message to employees

The Davos World Economic Forum 2014The Davos World Economic Forum 2014
Marissa Mayer, CEO of YahooPhotograph by Chris Ratcliffe — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Looks like I am one of the “armchair nannies” my colleague Dan Primack fretted about in his recent post, “Stop telling Marissa and Zuck how to parent.

On Tuesday, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took to Tumblr to announce that she’s pregnant with twins. Great news! But this portion of her post prompted mixed feelings—and a deluge of maternity leave think pieces:

“I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.”

In a perfect world, I’d encourage CEOs like Mayer and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who recently announced his impending fatherhood, to take their full parental leaves. It would be a powerful message to their own employees—and to other top executives in their industry—that taking time off to parent is important, fully supported, and good for business. Yet, I acknowledge that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here: Mayer, Zuckerberg and everyone else should raise their children whatever way works best for them.

My beef? Mayer’s Tumblr post. Given today’s media world and the rising prominence of parental leave issues in our culture, it’s hard to believe she didn’t see this kerfuffle coming.

After all, Mayer’s been here before. Back in early 2013 she announced that she was ending Yahoo’s work-from-home policy. Not surprisingly, the move upset many workers and stirred up debate about what it meant for the broader tech industry. While the ruckus eventually settled down, the backlash to the telecommuting ban remains one of the first things people think of when it comes to Mayer and Yahoo (YHOO).

Reflecting on the policy later that year, Mayer says the decision was simply about what was right for Yahoo at the time, but was “wrongly perceived as an industry narrative.” The root of that misperception can be traced back to the clumsy way the policy was communicated, as Fortune‘s Pattie Sellers wrote on the day it was announced.

She also ran into criticism during her first pregnancy, when she laid out the same plan—minimal time off—and followed through, returning to work just two weeks after giving birth to her son.

While Mayer announced her previous pregnancy via the press—in Fortune, no less!—today, executives have more freedom to make big announcements in their own carefully chosen words on their company blogs, sites like Medium and LinkedIn, or as in Mayer’s case, Tumblr. If Mayer didn’t intend to send a message by broadcasting her decision to take limited leave, she could have made that crystal clear. Simply adding a sentence or two reassuring Yahoo employees that what works for her is unlikely to fly for many working moms and dads—and encouraging them to use the parental leave benefits offered by the company—would have done the trick.

Part of being a good CEO is anticipating how your actions will be interpreted by industry and your employees. Mayer has shown that she can send positive messages about the importance of work/family balance to Yahoo workers—after all, she extended the companys paid parental leave policy just nine months after giving birth to her first child. I hope she will find a way to send a similar message this time around.

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