“Caught flat footed”
These are some of the ways that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg described how the company leadership felt when it was revealed that the product they’ve built has been used around the world for nefarious and anti-democratic purposes.
While Facebook is the biggest tech company whose leaders were shocked and surprised by what people were doing with their product, it is certainly not the only one. Let’s assume that the surprise is sincere. The surprise usually starts being voiced after the business expands globally—particularly to emerging markets—but does not hire the experienced global leaders at headquarters, where product decisions are made, that these companies need to manage this growth.
“While Facebook is the biggest tech company whose leaders were shocked and surprised by what people were doing with their product, it is certainly not the only one.”
Back in the 1990s, the biggest companies in the world—Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Mastercard and many others—committed to making their companies truly global to meet global challenges.
Procter & Gamble, for example, expected executives to go abroad, to live and work in emerging markets. They invested a great deal in an organizational transformation to give more power and decision-making authority to the executives who were working on the ground in other markets as well. And they promoted experienced professionals who showed good judgement in handling difficult business challenges overseas—especially in emerging markets. In order to advance to a top leadership position, executives were expected to have worked in several markets and handled difficult situations well.
When I was based in Moscow as an advertising executive in 2003-2004 working with Procter & Gamble, there were many unknowns that we tackled on a weekly basis. How should we craft the Tide product strategy in a country where more than half of the population doesn’t own a washing machine? How do we deal with the many ways that people use products in ways they were never intended—and which threaten to hurt the image of the most-highly-recognized brands in the world?
Beyond the business and product challenges, I also became fully immersed in a world outside the North American one I was comfortable in. By speaking and thinking in a different language, my constructs of rational thought subtly shifted. By spending weekends in villages without running water or sanitation, I became used to the struggles of millions around the world who have to plan their lives around constraints of things I take for granted, like water and electricity. And I met several families who had had their teenage children trafficked out of small villages in Ukraine and Siberia to cities in Russia, Western Europe, and the Middle East as sex workers.
“For products that extend to emerging markets, global experience not only matters, it is a hallmark of responsible leadership.
Through these uncomfortable experiences, the blind spots that I didn’t even know I had became filled with perspectives and understandings that provided a broader context for decision-making. Filling in those blind spots made me less likely to succumb to idealism, groupthink, or being blindsided back at work—and my company benefited from its executives having this global perspective.
But what about executives and leaders of the biggest and most influential companies of today—the big Silicon Valley tech companies? What does the profile of an average Silicon Valley executive look like? What kind of perspective do the people making decisions about the products transforming our world have today?
In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg said, “Young people are just smarter.”
And so, the practice at Facebook for the last decade (and among other tech companies and VCs) has been to devalue experience, from management experience to product experience to global experience—especially emerging market experience. The hiring philosophy has been to hire smart engineers straight out of college (Stanford or Harvard mostly) and have them build products and build teams amongst the organic strawberries and gourmet lattes of Palo Alto.
“Many tech workers spend their entire managerial lives in a bubble of year-round 72 degree weather and political idealism, making decisions that will affect billions of people whom they do not fully understand.”
Even when the products expand to global markets—today the majority of Facebook’s users are from emerging markets—most of Facebook’s top product executives still had not worked in those markets for any length of time. For example, the entire Facebook News Feed Leadership, the product that had been hijacked by bad actors in Russia, Myanmar, and many other regions, still does not have a single VP product leader or decision-maker who has worked outside of the US or Western Europe.
How can this team anticipate how people will use the product around the world, and how can they be trusted to make the right product decisions? Unfortunately, instead of thinking deeply about how to answer these questions, and how to fix the blind spots on their team, Facebook continues to double-down on its hiring and management practices that de-value global experience and does not seem to be actively searching for top new product executives with a more global and human perspective. And so, they will inevitably continue to be “blindsided” and “caught flat footed” in their decision making.
Facebook is not alone.
Even though many tech workers are foreign-born, I have met very few top Silicon Valley tech executives who worked and led teams in an emerging market as managers and decision-makers. Many tech leaders, after their childhoods in places like India, China, Brazil, or the former Soviet Union, move to the US for college and never go back. They spend their entire managerial lives in a bubble of year-round 72 degree weather and political idealism, making decisions that will affect billions of people whom they do not fully understand, in social and business environments that are very different than the West. They have no direct experience grappling with how to make tough decisions about a global product strategy that might be wrong or harmful in another culture. They have no experience living among the overseas communities that their bad product decisions directly affected, and have not had to look their teams in the eye every day to explain how this global product direction set halfway around the world makes sense in this market.
And yet, the CEOs and VCs who are guiding the strategy of tech simply don’t know what they don’t know, because they usually lack global experience themselves. As the saying goes, it is the blind leading the blind, so when their products have disastrous consequences in emerging markets, all theses Silicon Valley execs can say is that they were “blindsided.”
It’s time to wake up and start seeing product development through a more global lens. To fix the problems plaguing tech today, we need to recognize three things about tech leaders:
No, young people are not just smarter.
Yes, experience matters.
And for products that extend to emerging markets, global experience not just matters, it is a hallmark of responsible leadership.