Facebook may be the most brilliant advertising business model ever created. While it's true that Google has a larger overall ad business, Facebook has probably created, by far, the most streamlined system for data collection, tracking, and delivering targeted ads. 

I feel like it's important to say that up front because I don't want this column to be misinterpreted. The company Mark Zuckerberg has built, from a business standpoint, is a case study in creating something and turning it into a massively profitable platform.

The thing is, that's not the entire story. 

To understand the big picture, you might consider Steven Levy's new book, Facebook: The Inside Story, which was published by Random House on Monday. 

There are few people who have written more about Facebook than Levy, and the book reflects years of access and observation. As with Levy's other works, it's a fascinating look at the tech industry, and one player in particular. 

One of the most telling quotes in the book comes from an employee who was in the room for many of Zuckerberg's decisions. "Leaders fail when they convince themselves that everyone disagreeing with them is a signal for them being right," Levy quotes the executive as saying.

That's actually a pretty sage piece of leadership wisdom. The problem is that it's a hard lesson for leaders to internalize and act upon. Levy writes about the effect Facebook's missteps and scandals have taken on the company, describing the results of an internal poll that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal in 2018. In it, thousands of workers said they no longer felt that what Facebook was building was good for the world. 

I wrote last summer that of the many challenges Facebook is up against, by far the biggest is the fact that its founder is a true believer, by which I meant that Zuckerberg only sees Facebook as he imagines it in his own mind, not as it exists in the world.

In his mind, Facebook is a company pursuing noble objectives that will bring good into the world. In reality, it's the most efficient tool ever created for monetizing the personal data of its users.

That disconnect was never more clear than when Zuckerberg testified before Congress in 2018, during which he was asked questions about Facebook's advertising platform. The system was complex, Levy writes, that Zuckerberg wasn't even entirely sure how it worked. "I actually felt like I didn't understand all the details around how we were using external data on our ad system, and I wasn't okay with that," Zuckerberg told Levy shortly after testifying.

That's because despite being unarguably brilliant, Zuckerberg doesn't see Facebook the way outsiders see it. Sure, it brings actual value in the sense that it allows people to connect in ways they otherwise couldn't. At the same time, there's a real cost to users in terms of privacy and the marketing of their personal information.

Which brings us back to the lesson for every company. Your job is to hire the very best people you can, to do the very best work they can. Both of those things require that you listen to those smart people you hired, especially when they start to raise alarms. 

When your team asks "why are we doing this?" one of two things is true: The first is that you need to do a better job of sharing the 'why,' behind your vision. That's often the case and it's a leader's job to make that clear. The second and more urgent possibility is that it might be worth considering whether you should be doing it at all. 

Published on: Feb 26, 2020
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