How Facebook builds its culture

MT sits down with the social network's global HR chief Lori Goler.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 Jul 2017

It’s hard to resist having a poke around when you get a glimpse inside the Facebook mothership. This is the company that first persuaded us to reveal our inner lives to the world, after all, so it seems only right to return the favour.

Facebook’s UK HQ, near Warren Street, is a curious blend of the prosaic and the remarkable. Primary colours abound. Beyond the rows of perfectly ordinary desks, there’s a giant statue of a teenage mutant ninja turtle. Signage is prolific, reminding you among other things that ‘nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem’, and that you should ‘connect more’.

By the time I’d reached Facebook’s global HR head Lori Goler, I’d heard three languages (there are over 65 nationalities present among the 1,000 or so employees there) and encountered a couple of employees with a baby. We sat down to discuss what it’s really like at the social network, and some of the challenges it faces.

MT: You’ve worked at Facebook since the early days. How did you get the job?

Goler: I’ve worked in tech since around 2000, but I’m not an engineer. In the fall of 2007, I was at eBay in a marketing role. Whilst I was commuting, I heard Mark Zuckerberg do an interview on the radio on Facebook’s social mission. I thought that was really interesting, but the company had a reputation at the time for only hiring engineers.

The following spring, Sheryl Sandberg announced she was moving to become Facebook’s COO. I thought that must mean they’re building the business side (of course I was wrong – Facebook already had business functions!), so I called her and asked what their biggest challenge was and whether I could help with it. She said we need to grow the team, so will you come lead our recruiting organisation.

MT: It must have changed a fair deal since then. At last count there were around 15,000 employees, compared to 500 a decade ago.

Goler: Facebook feels so similar to what it felt like when I started. Most of the people who interviewed me are still here and I work with them every day. It’s just that we have a lot more people now to help us. It’s still a place that’s very open and transparent – we always used Facebook internally as an enterprise tool, and that hasn’t changed.

MT: It must make it one of the few places where people aren’t looking over their shoulders in case their boss sees them on Facebook...

Goler: You’re on Facebook all day every day. We’d be wondering why you’re not on it.

MT: Tell us something we may not know about Facebook’s culture?

Goler: We’re a strengths based company. You might occasionally find a team or manager who believes in that philosophy, but we’re an entire company based on it, which is really unusual.  It’s also surprising how frequently people share feedback, informally or formally.

We have a performance cycle twice a year, but at Facebook six months is a long time. It’s about sharing with people what’s worked and what hasn’t, not necessarily about your work but maybe about a particular project, and taking time to reflect. We’re a learning culture, and Mark (Zuckerberg) is of course the chief learner.

He’s constantly learning new things, whether it’s Mandarin or one year he read more books than I can count, now he’s meeting lots of people he’d never normally meet. That sense of learning infiltrates the whole company.

MT: What’s Zuckerberg like as a boss?

Both Mark and Sheryl (Sandberg) are tremendously authentic leaders. The way you see them show up is the way they are. They’re visionaries, but they’re also real people, we have real conversations and they get their hands dirty. You see the real Mark and Sheryl on Facebook, in the posts they make, but we just see a little more of it internally.

MT: When you started out, your mission was to spread the word that Facebook’s a great place to work. If anything you must now have too many applicants – how do you sift through them all?

Goler: We’re still looking for builders, people who will look at something and think that works pretty well but it could be better, and then set about making it better. A lot of those people can share examples of what they’ve already done. For example, meeting a university student, you might find in addition to their classes that they’ve built an app. It doesn’t have to have a million users, just that they’ve taken the time to build something. It doesn’t have to be an app. It could be a new business process. Something where they’ve tried new things and gone out of their comfort zone.

We’re looking for people who don’t just want the opportunity to build – who wouldn’t want the opportunity? – but who are willing to accept the responsibility.

MT: Presumably empowerment is essential then?

Goler: Oh yes. Part of the reason we’ve found so much value in being tremendously open internally is it gives people the context they need to move fast, take bold actions and still all be rowing in the same direction. You have more autonomy when anyone can access information or people with expertise. You can walk up to anyone and say what are you working on, there are no secret projects.

It also means good things bubble up from anywhere. Our hackathons are a great example of that. You’re building something with a team of people you don’t normally work with, and the things that stand out are the things that get ported over to the main site.  Safety Check [Facebook’s tool that allows users to ‘check in’ in the event of an emergency] came from a group of engineers in Japan, who had the idea after an earthquake there. That’s not why we sent them there, but that’s where it came from.

MT: How do you keep hold of entrepreneurial people like that? It must be in their nature to want to pop off and start their own business.

Goler: Through strengths. If you’re in a role that plays to your strengths, doing work you enjoy, you stay. Doing something that really matters to you and that has a purpose to do something good in the world give you pride in your work, a sense of ownership and pride in your organisation.

MT: What kind of issues does Facebook face around diversity? The tech sector doesn’t have the best reputation in the world.

Goler: Diversity is part of our mission, it has to be to serve a community of two billion people, and we know from research that you build better products and business outcomes when you have it. We take a diverse slate approach ,where we won’t move forward until we have a diverse group of candidates for the job. As a result we often end up meeting candidates who are stronger than those who are easier to find.

In the United States, 17-18% of computer science students are women. That’s the largest pool of women you can find in one place, so we’ve really done a lot there, but it’s also about making longer term investments in organisations like code.org, trying to get a broader diversity of students to study computer science at university.

Something we don’t talk about enough is nationality – we have dozens represented. It’s a different form of diversity from the conversation that normally happens.

MT: How about diversity of thought? Some people would suggest that the tech sector is so full of optimists that it might benefit from hiring a few people who haven’t drunk the Kool Aid, as it were.

Goler: It’s helpful to have people with a very pragmatic view of everything in the company. We need all those points of view.

MT: Last question – fake news is big news these days. Facebook talks about taking it very seriously, but what’s that look like from the inside? Is it a watercooler conversation as well as a board room one?

Goler: We take our social responsibilities very seriously at every level. One of things new people will tell you is that they are surprised by how much more intense that sense of responsibility is internally relative to how it sometimes appears externally.

This transcript has been edited.

Image credit: Facebook

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