27 September 2023

Leadership lessons for success

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Peter Cohan* shares three surprising leadership lessons from Mark Zuckerberg.

Dropping out of Harvard to pursue an entrepreneurial dream is the stuff of startup legend – especially when those who dropout become multibillionaires by running companies that change the world.

Even if you never come close to achieving that level of success, there is something to be learned from their approach to leadership.

Bill Gates – who long ago left his role as CEO of Microsoft – has used his wealth to help the world through his foundation.

As CEO, Gates benefited from sharing key responsibilities with Steve Ballmer.

Gates did the product development and Ballmer handled sales and scrutinized financial performance and operations.

To be sure, Gates erred when he appointed Ballmer to succeed him as CEO.

That problem has clearly been remedied since Satya Nadella grabbed the baton.

In my view, Nadella is one of today’s best high-tech CEOs – his management style has helped propel Microsoft’s stock at a 33 per cent compound annual rate since he took over in 2014.

Meanwhile, another Harvard dropout who became a billionaire – Mark Zuckerberg – has yet to tap the opportunity to make the world better.

In fact, I am acutely aware of how much harm the company formerly known as Facebook has done.

Evidence of this harm includes allegations that Facebook helped swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump, that a political consulting firm hijacked Facebook user data, and that its algorithms endangered users, according to CNBC.

Despite these allegations, the firm now known as Meta – I think the name change was partially aimed at making people forget these scandals – has enriched investors through its stock, which is up at an 18.3 per cent compound annual rate since its 2012 IPO.

Here are three leadership strategies CEO Mark Zuckerberg used to propel that growth.

  1. Identify the essential capabilities needed to make your company successful.

After interviewing hundreds of startup CEOs and listening to countless pitches for venture capital, I’ve come to a simple realisation: Successful startups need people with two key skills to get off the ground – product skills and people skills.

A product person is the technical genius who can see where an industry is heading before the competition does.

The product person can build something new and better that will wow customers – resulting in rapid demand growth.

Were it possible for one such product person to operate a company, there would be no need for an executive team.

The reality is that companies cannot grow unless they excel at other activities – these include hiring and motivating people to do jobs like sales, marketing, manufacturing, product development.

It is essential to do all these other things – and in many cases a product person will hire a people person, in the role of chief operating officer, to oversee all of them.

If you are a product person, do you have such a people person?

  1. Assess which of those capabilities you bring to the table.

To Zuckerberg’s credit, he realised that he excelled at building the product and could therefore attract talented engineers who saw an opportunity to develop their own skills by working with him.

Zuckerberg also realised that he was not a people person and he was able to hire one of the best for the role of chief operating officer.

The most valuable leadership lesson from Zuckerberg is to hire someone who excels at the activities on which your business’s future growth depends and that you cannot do well.

Simply put, recognise the skills that your business needs to succeed, do the ones at which you excel, and hire other executives to do the ones where you’re weak.

  1. Hire a chief operating officer who excels at the skills you lack.

How do you hire such a person?

As I wrote in November 2014, I think Zuckerberg did a great job when he picked Sheryl Sandberg for that role.

Though lacking great technical chops, she demonstrated formidable intellectual horsepower – graduating at the top of her Harvard college and business school classes.

She was good at doing all the things that people with big brains – such as her former boss, treasury secretary Larry Summers – don’t want to do.

Zuckerberg recently said that her unique skill set – which combines excellence at strategy and managing people – has helped the company grow.

Facebook’s progress depended on the company’s ability to deliver difficult feedback.

Zuckerberg needed help with that and Sandberg stepped in.

As he said, “Sheryl always says that [our] progress … is directly proportional to [how many] hard conversations [we] have.

“[She has built this] into [Meta’s] cultural operation system,” reported CNBC.

I don’t know what the future holds for Meta, but your company will be better if you take this advice.

*Peter Cohan is a strategy consultant, startup investor, teacher, corporate speaker, pundit, and author of 15 books.

This article first appeared at inc.com.

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