Leadership lessons from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg has become the centre of attention as the Facebook road show travels the globe. But should a leader eclipse their brand? Cirrus leadership expert Rob Davies takes a look at the Zuckerberg/Facebook phenomenon.

by Rob Davies
Last Updated: 18 May 2012

Following the announcement of Facebook’s much-anticipated initial public offering, taking place later this week, hundreds of potential investors queued to see the CEO pitch his company in New York. Hundreds more were disappointed when Zuckerberg was a no-show in Boston the following day. As Facebook prepares to go public, can Zuckerberg do more to deflect some of this attention away from him and towards his company?

Zuckerberg is not leading these events alone. In fact, fellow executives and video presentations are playing a significant part in the briefings. But there is no doubt that he is the main attraction. He is the person that potential investors most want to see. In his trademark jeans and hoodie, Zuckerberg represents what many find appealing about Facebook.

Although Zuckerberg is one of those CEOs who embodies the values of his organisation, he also appears keen that his colleagues do the same. Sharing leadership responsibility is a critical challenge for any CEO during a period of growth or change. Zuckerberg is encouraging chief financial officer David Ebersman and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to play prominent roles at the road show. Chris Cox, Facebook's VP of product is also emerging as its ultimate storyteller. Paired up with Zuckerberg in the IPO video, his engaging, informal communication style, enthusiastic gesticulation, and frequent use of 'amazing', 'immense' and 'incredible' personify Facebook’s easy connectivity.

Although investors are attracted to Zuckerberg and are expected to flock to the IPO, many will be feeling nervous about whether his leadership style can adapt to meet the needs of shareholders. Amongst his admirers are those who feel uneasy about his majority control and are unsure about his strategic focus. Will he manage to retain what is unique and attractive about Facebook, while delivering positive growth and shareholder return?  Can he increasingly share leadership responsibility across the organisation while retaining Facebook’s distinctive culture and values?

There’s no doubt that Facebook is a phenomenal success. But does Zuckerberg have what it takes to secure long-term growth?

The CEO appears to be skilled at connecting with a wide range of people and balances openness, informality and a bit of nerdy quirkiness with structure and ambition. He has said in the past that he is 'here to build something for the long term.' He famously rejected Yahoo’s offer to buy Facebook for $1bn in 2006. At the time, many commentators thought he should have accepted what appeared to be a generous offer in a volatile market and tough climate. But Zuckerberg retained his longer-term focus, saying 'we really just believe in what we're doing.' At the heart of Facebook is a simple concept: connecting people and empowering them to share the things they want to. Facebook’s mission is to ‘make the world more open and connected’. This also appears to be Zuckerberg’s leadership philosophy.

Zuckerberg has made mistakes. He has talked openly about them and learned from them. For example, privacy issues with the introduction of Facebook’s first news feed led to one user starting a group called ‘Students against Facebook news feed’ which quickly gained 750,000 users in one what. What did Zuckerberg do? He personally apologised to the group’s founder and asked him for advice. He made new allies and turned a PR disaster into a positive story, which only encouraged people to engage with Facebook even more enthusiastically.

The IPO means Zuckerberg will have a lot more people to answer to. Will his leadership style need to change? If he can continue to forge successful connections, inspire people with his vision, and devolve leadership responsibility while retaining clarity and focus, he should be just fine.  

Rob Davies is principal consultant at Cirrus

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