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Amy M. Wilkinson
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Amy M. Wilkinson

Amy M. Wilkinson is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Center for Business and Government and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Visit her < a href="www.amymwilkinson.com">website for more.

What COO Sheryl Sandberg brings

Q: The ongoing privacy controversy at Facebook raises the familiar dilemma of what to do when fast-growing startups threaten to outgrow the management abilities of creative young founders. The Google guys got kudos for bringing in industry veteran Eric Schmidt as CEO, but things didn't work out as well when Pepsi's John Sculley took the reins from a young Steve Jobs at Apple. What's the leadership wisdom here?

Is it time for Mark Zuckerberg to step aside as CEO of Facebook? No. In fact, ousting boy wonder is an absurd idea, not to mention impossible. Yes, Mark has made mistakes and ongoing privacy concerns must be addressed, but explosive growth understandably comes with growing pains. Together with COO Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg catalyzes a winning combination for Facebook: product innovation with business execution.

In 2009, Facebook doubled in size from 200 to 400 million active users. If it were a country, Facebook would have the third-largest population in the world, behind only China and India and ahead of the United States. To help lead such extraordinary growth, COO Sheryl Sandberg provides 'adult supervision' at the young company. As a Google veteran who ran AdSense and AdWords, Google's revenue engine, Sandberg is an experienced and savvy internet executive.

Leadership partnerships like the one at Facebook are the key to success in the innovation economy. At Google, a power-sharing triumvirate of product innovation and business execution underpins ongoing growth. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin execute on the innovation front, while CEO Eric Schmidt provides seasoned business expertise. The Google partnership has unleashed extraordinary results, creating one of the world's fastest growing businesses on the cutting-edge of innovation.

A similar structure worked at Microsoft for years. Bill Gates, an obsessive product expert, personally performed extensive reviews of his company's pre-released technologies. Early on, Gates recognized the need for business execution, and built a management team around himself that included now-CEO Steve Ballmer. With this structure, the company was able to grow smoothly without sacrificing innovation.

As a counter example, Apple failed when founder Steve Jobs was ousted and John Sculley took the reins to focus more on management than product-orientation. Soon consumers turned to competitors for more innovative goods and Apple neared bankruptcy. When Jobs was brought back to revamp the company, the release of the iMac put Apple's focus back on cutting-edge products. Later releases such as the iPod, iPhone, and most recently, the iPad, demonstrate Apple's revitalized balance between product innovation and business execution. Here again, the combination of Steve Jobs as innovator partnered with COO Tim Cook as experienced executive, provides a winning leadership team.

"Founders are usually product-focused types like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg," explains Sheryl Sandberg in an interview for my forthcoming book on entrepreneurial leaders. "Then you have business people who come in and say, 'Let's use resources well and motivate people.'" Sandberg has done just that. During her two year tenure at Facebook, the company has gone cash-flow positive to the tune of an estimated $800 million in 2009 revenues, increasing to $2 billion this year.

Needless to say, Mark Zuckerberg shows no signs of stepping out of the global powerhouse he has built in just six years. Through every big decision Zuckerberg has made about his company it is just that - his company. Today Zuckerberg controls three of five Facebook board seats and in November 2009, he revamped the company's shareholder structure so that after Facebook IPOs, Mark and his partners will control stock that gives them 10 votes each instead of just one vote per share.

It is a tricky balance to strike between product innovation and business execution. If the examples of Google and Apple demonstrate anything, they point to the need to support innovative founders. Certainly at Facebook, the combination of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg seems a recipe for success.

By Amy M. Wilkinson

 |  June 9, 2010; 2:46 PM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Facebook's urgent task | Next: Zuckerberg's empty-nest syndrome

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Disagree. Can't share power.

To maximize value, you need a person with leadership skills. (BTW, leadership skills are not born, they're acquired through hard work. But it's accessible to all. See The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner.)

Zuckergerg - while brilliant and has created alot of value - is a brat. He either needs to grow and acquire leadership skills or not be in that position. The Google guys did it right. They got Schmidt to come in and provide leadership; now they're free to create, explore, go to the desert, whatever.

Posted by: Marina8 | June 10, 2010 4:53 PM
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I am intrigued by your thesis as there are certainly standards and processes that increase the chances of entrepreneurial success. It appears that you undersatnd what these best practices are and I wonder if you will comment in more detail on these in your forthcoming book? I look forward to reading it.

Posted by: lsl777 | June 10, 2010 1:27 PM
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agree! division of labor works

Posted by: johns14 | June 10, 2010 9:23 AM
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Agree! It's the combo that's going to make this work.

Posted by: JulieAK | June 9, 2010 9:22 PM
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Interesting thesis regarding the need for teamwork between technology innovators and business-driven leaders.

Posted by: dbw02 | June 9, 2010 8:09 PM
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It's true that a lot of the tech companies have got it right - business and innovation. Choosing between one or the other is a false dilemma.

Posted by: CodyR | June 9, 2010 4:13 PM
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Great article! Google, MS, and FB seem to have a good model for leadership. I don't know much about the current Apple leadership team (does #2 wear a black turtleneck too?)...will have to learn more. Of course, looking back, we should have known that Pepsi doesn't go well with Apples. Jeesh.

I do wonder about longevity though. At some point, the founder has to pass the reins. So far, Gates has done this. Will be interesting to watch these other companies...I guess the young age of Zuckerberg and Google's trio may make that a long wait. I wonder what the best practices are for succcession planning?

Nice work!

Posted by: ofritz | June 9, 2010 3:46 PM
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