The accelerating pace of change is catching out some of the best in the business, but don’t let it be you, warns former Facebook Australia CEO.
New ideas, technologies and practices are now streaming into our lives, disrupting work and businesses in ways we could never have predicted, and former Facebook Australia CEO Stephen Scheeler recommends paying close attention to the trends and forecasts.
Always be prepared for the Albanian army to invade
Scheeler, speaking at last week’s ASFA Beyond HR conference, used communications as an example of the speed of change.
He says it took radio 40 years to amass 50 million users. TV was a little faster, taking 14 years to hit that mark. Facebook got there within four years and WeChat – the Chinese social media platform – took only four months.
The result can be devastating for those who don’t tune in. In 2010, Scheeler remembers asking the then Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes whether Netflix was a threat. Bewkes responded, “Is the Albanian army going to take over the world?”
Despite Time Warner’s lack of foresight, Scheeler encouraged delegates to “think like a tech giant”. Pretend you work for Amazon; if they don’t have a solution, they build one, he says.
Speaking to executives at Qantas, Scheeler recalls learning that one of the biggest problems passengers face when flying is a lack of sleep. So, he was surprised to hear that the airline wasn’t collecting data about how well its passengers sleep on flights.
“It’s too important of an issue to not have any data around. An airline has more people sleeping in a controlled environment than any other business. All the data they gather on how people sleep could open up a whole other industry for them in sleep science,” he says.
While data collection and security is a contentious issue for Facebook, Scheeler encouraged delegates to collect data on everything, likening it to digging for an opal. While you’ve got to do a lot of digging, and the information might sometimes feel irrelevant, you’ll eventually come across an opal, he says.
Think about your people differently
Facebook has joined the queue of companies behaving badly in the digital world, with a recent data breach that saw around 87 million users’ personal information compromised.
And, while the tech giant suffers bad reviews online from former and some current employees, it’s faced a host of people management challenges by virtue of its massive growth (from about 150 employees in 2006 to almost 28,000 today) and its geographic spread (offices and data centres in some 80 cities worldwide).
Scheeler says there’s a recognition by Facebook that employees’ talent is the core of the business: “you don’t work for Facebook, you are Facebook”.
“That’s the way we all need to build businesses,” he says.
That employee-centric approach extends to managing time. Staff are encouraged to have autonomy over their schedules and if a meeting interrupts their work flow, they’re not expected to attend, says Scheeler.
For meetings that are absolutely necessary, Scheeler referred to a “two pizza rule”. The more people who are involved in a meeting, the less productive it’s likely to be. As a rule of thumb, if two pizzas couldn’t feed all present at a meeting, there are too many people involved.
Facebook also takes a strength-based leadership approach; putting staff in roles where they will have the most impact and avoiding anything that amplifies their weaknesses. By doing this, staff can then get into what psychologists call a “flow state” – they feel like they’re really nailing their work.
The human resources perspective
One delegate, Angela Cusack, principal advisor at Bespoke Services, says this style of strength-based leadership resonates with her.
“We should look at someone’s potential, not what they’ve already done. HR has a role to encourage design thinking, to not get caught up in our own paradigm and seek input from all levels of the organisation as to the strategic direction and opportunities to pursue,” she says.
Equipsuper’s executive officer, capability & enablement Sarah Guthleben, says she was most interested in Scheeler’s comments that a combination of purpose, autonomy and impact for staff can overshadow any sense of ambiguity and change. “If you get the first part of the equation right, then your organisation can start to deal with those things that feel out of our control,” she says.
Elliott Young, growth manager at Weploy, says he took a lot of “mini-business lessons” from Scheeler’s presentation, including the importance of honing your business’ mission, expecting to fail at 50 per cent of your goals, maintaining your curiosity – at both a personal and professional level – and, referring to the Qantas example, measuring the air your customers breathe.
However, he believes the Facebook culture isn’t at all egalitarian. While they might believe they’re bringing the world closer together, Young says “growth, greed and ambition led them astray from their mission”.
“Facebook, by nature or design, can be seen as arrogant with an air of invincibility. However, they have done well to try and change this perception at the top and local level.”
Even bus stops are showing Facebook apology adverts in the Sydney CBD, Young says.
Prepare your business for the next big tech disruptor with insights from AI experts and HR luminaries at the HR Tech Conference on 28 August in Melbourne – a part of the four-day AHRI National Convention and Exhibition from 28 to 31 August. Registration closes 21 August.