March 29, 2018

What Mark Zuckerberg can learn from Willy Wonka

Willy Wonka was the first CEO we knew who dealt with a crisis while maintaining an air of mystery, growing a global dominant brand, and expertly orchestrating his succession plan. His successor, Charlie Bucket, the young CEO-in-waiting, was selected amongst a group of candidates because of the authenticity, humanity, and humility that Wonka saw in him.

The two CEOs, Zuckerberg and Wonka are eccentric. Their personas, and how they value themselves is defined by their company and the product, and it’s perhaps their distinctive lack of charisma that is part of their genius. What they both have in common is their lack of dealing with the public and their inability to disassociate between the failure of themselves and the failure of their company.

If you have yet to see the video interview of Mark Zuckerberg, then take a moment to watch it (CNN Full interview with Mark Zuckerberg), as it was his first public appearance after the Cambridge Analytica fallout. As an executive recruiter, I couldn’t help but view what I was watching in the way I would interpret a candidate interview. Only briefly, at the beginning of the interview did Mark Zuckerberg appear to be comfortable and in the driver’s seat. Body language, eye contact, stoic expressions, and silences preceded ambiguous answers to questions that required clarity – from the Chief Executive. Laurie Segall did a really great job in my opinion. When given the opportunity to take accountability by testifying in Congress himself, he chose to pass the buck, “I’m happy to if it’s the right thing to do. We send the person at Facebook who will have the most knowledge about what Congress is trying to learn. If that’s me then I am happy to go“. Segall presses further “you are the brand of Facebook, people want to hear from you.” Mark replies abruptly “that’s why I am doing this interview”. Don’t take my word for it, watch the interview.

Personally I am a Mark Zuckerberg fan; I am a fan of the story. Who doesn’t embrace the story of a college dropout who created one of the most powerful companies in the world in the span of less than ten years? Here is a CEO who has created an incredible business – no one can argue with that. To be fair, I do not fault him for not being the perfect CEO, he is 33 years old and by sheer years on this planet, has not had enough experiences to deal with every crisis. He is not comfortable in, and his strengths are not managing the public eye.

It is anyone’s choice to use Facebook as much as it is anyone’s choice to buy shares in the company. However, as the CEO, by definition, the buck stops with you. As the CEO of a publicly traded company, Mark Zuckerberg, like any other person in his position, has a fiduciary responsibility to his shareholders who choose to invest in his business. Zuckerberg is not a publicly elected official but it doesn’t make him any less accountable to his users and shareholders.

Where Mark Zuckerberg may take a page from Wonka’s playbook is that Wonka – long before Charlie Bucket walked amongst the candy wonderland with Grandpa Joe – decided, based on a data breach, that securing his IP, the recipes and processes, was the only way to protect his company. Unlike Wonka, it’s not possible for Facebook to close its doors and continue its dominance, as I am unaware of any Oompa Loompas that can code.

This is a prescient moment in Mark Zuckerberg’s life where I believe he has the opportunity to become a better leader and a communicator. Should he choose not to, well then it’s our choice as consumers and investors to use the platform or buy into his company.

For Mark Zuckerberg the question is – what will he do with his chocolate factory?