If Facebook’s vast membership is purely Mark Zuckerberg’s contribution to the company’s success, the business prosperity is largely the contribution of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO.
Traditionally, young technology companies followed a different model of management. Even though young founders stayed on and helped the companies grow, they often preferred to bring in an established and experienced executive to run the company. They understood that those executives had the necessary skills to provide appropriate leadership, to address Wall Street audiences, and to bring operational execution and order to the startup mentality. That was the case with companies such as Google, LinkedIn, and eBay, which recruited Eric Schmidt, Jeff Weiner, and Meg Whitman to take the helm as CEO. But it seems like the partnership model is changing, and Facebook is at the helm of that change.
As Henry Blodget wrote in an article  for New York magazine, the Zuckerberg-Sandberg partnership “has now become a new model for tech company-building. Instead of replacing the quirky founder with a professional CEO, companies now try to ‘go get a Sheryl.’” Jeffrey Bussgang, general partner at the venture capital firm Flybridge Capital Partners, says: “The new model is there is enough pride and recognition of the COO role when you have a young technical CEO beside you. People used to look down on that, and now it’s a badge of honor. I think boards are just being smarter about the positive cultural impact that keeping the founder in place over the long haul can have. The founder represents the soul of the company.”
Facebook’s model of two worlds--product development and operational excellence--integrated together and led by two people who complement each other offers an outstanding example of a company that is succeeding through strategic partnership. I call this partnership model “The Visionary and The Builder.” The Visionary is the partner who is a “dream architect”--he has a clear understanding of the company’s purpose and shapes its long-term strategic outlook based on that purpose; he leads the company through inspiration and blue-sky vision. The Builder is the partner who is a “value architect”--she leads the functions that support the mission of The Visionary and ensures that this mission is executed operationally. This is not to say that the two don’t ever overlap, or that the two partners don’t share a common vision, interests, or skills. But for this model to work successfully, as it has for Facebook, the two partners each need to have distinguished skill sets that the other doesn’t possess. In the case of Facebook, Zuckerberg focuses on product development and the platform’s global expansion, because that is what he is great at, and Sandberg brings operational skills that ensure stability and discipline within the company as it executes on Zuck’s vision.
The Visionary-Builder model is the most common model of partnership. Throughout history, we’ve seen multiple examples of partnerships that went from two entrepreneurs and a dream to multimillion dollar empires: Hewlett and Packard, Sears and Roebuck, McGraw and Hill. The list goes on. But there are also instances of similar partnerships with three or more partners contributing their wisdom, and/or their expertise, and/or their finances to a venture. CollegeHumor, Warner Bros., and Johnson & Johnson are among them.
Warner Bros. was created by the four sons of Polish-born Jewish immigrants: Sam, Albert, Harry, and Jack Warner. After getting their start in the early 1900s working in film distribution (they ran a traveling movie business), they founded their own movie house and began producing their own movies. Sam came up with the idea of producing a feature-length talkie and got hold of the technology that allowed the brothers to create one. Everyone else thought it was crazy, it wouldn’t work. The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, was a big hit and grossed about $3 million. That revolutionized the industry and put Warner Bros. on the map.
Steve Jobs once said: “My model of business is the Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.” The two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) were the type of partners who complemented each other very well when they started Apple. Wozniak remembers that he would labor on his innovations while also working at Hewlett-Packard, and Jobs “would always find a way to turn them into money.” Even though the two of them were different, they were also similar in a lot of ways. Wozniak says: “We both grew up in the counter-culture days, we both admired people who thought differently about things. We were very much alike in that time frame.” When Wozniak unveiled his first creation--a personal computer--to his friend, Steve Jobs, he intended to give his innovation away for free. But Jobs saw the future; he shared the dream of making the world a better place through user-friendly technology, and he convinced his friend that they should start their own company, Apple Computer.
True collaboration is a powerful thing. People naturally are drawn to co-create. They want to share their ideas with like-minded people; they look for different angles and various experiences to not only help shape their ideas and make them better, but to make those ideas a reality. Alvah Curtis Roebuck, who responded to an ad for technical help placed by Richard Warren Sears, contributed his technical skills to the vision of a marketing genius--their collaboration and friendship in the late 19th century gave birth to Sears Roebuck and Company. But unlike Roebuck and Sears, who didn’t know one another, people often find partners in their own close circle of friends and family. Trust is one of the key components in a successful partnership and is usually developed over years.
Walt Disney, whose remarkable imagination created the world of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and many more beloved cartoon characters, relied heavily on his brother, Roy O. Disney, in building his empire. Walt gave his older brother a lot of credit for building an entertainment business out of his fantasies. It was Roy who lent his brother $250 on top of Walt’s $40 investment to start their partnership and open a cartoon studio. Their uncle lent them an additional $500. In the early days, Walt drew his cartoon characters, and Roy worked the cameras and kept the finances in check. Together they built an amazing empire and brightened the world for millions of kids. When Walt Disney passed away, his brother took the helm of the company. But Roy didn’t try to fill the creative shoes of his sibling, stating that Walt had built a great organization and that he would keep Walt’s spirit alive. Roy did not change the direction of the company, continuing the legacy of his younger brother. While Walt had a dream, Roy had the knowledge and capabilities to help his brother make his dream a reality. Roy was eight years older, had experience working in a bank, and also knew that his brother was prone to neglect his business affairs, focusing too much on the artistic side. A brilliant businessman, Roy stayed in the shadows and provided strong support to Walt as he created fascinating stories that captured the imagination of children around the world.
Shared values, common interests, and strong leadership collaboration put organizations like HP, Disney, and Facebook on the path to success. The long list of other examples includes Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s, Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight of Nike, and the list goes on. These brands, recognizable across the planet, started with simple partnerships and grew into empires.
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--This article was excerpted from Think Like Zuck , by Ekaterina Walter, ©2013 McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permission of the publisher.
[Image: Flickr user Steve Snodgrass ]