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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg celebrates her eight-year anniversary with CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg celebrates her eight-year anniversary with CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Mark Zuckerberg / Facebook

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Facebook is full of could-be CEOs — but no one ever leaves

“The stakes are more intense than ever.”

This month was the perfect month to leave Facebook.

The social giant, which has been under fire over the past 18 months because of Russia or Cambridge Analytica or Myanmar or one of numerous other company oversights, shuffled its executive deck in a major way. A lot of people got new jobs, new teams were formed, and a lot of people wouldn’t have noticed if someone from Facebook’s management team had decided to leave it all behind.

But no one left, which is surprising until you consider the fact that no one in Facebook’s upper ranks ever seems to leave the company. One member of the management team, Mike Vernal, left Facebook for venture firm Sequoia two years ago. WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum, who joined via an acquisition, left at the end of April. That’s about it.

It’s doubly surprising when you consider, as one former employee said, “There are more could-be CEOs at Facebook than any other company.” COO Sheryl Sandberg’s name is routinely mentioned whenever a big CEO position in tech or media comes available.

Yet Facebook’s upper ranks have looked very familiar for a very long time. The company doesn’t comment on the makeup of its management team, which is now more than 20 people, sources say. But if you look at the top 14 or so executives not named Zuckerberg, an unofficial list we compiled through numerous conversations and interviews, the average tenure is more than nine-and-a-half years. All of these people, except CFO Dave Wehner, worked at Facebook before its 2012 IPO.

Facebook executive tenure

Nearly every executive on this list has had a longer tenure at Facebook than the average tech CEO in the S&P 500, which is 6.8 years, according to data from executive research firm Equilar.

In the technology industry, where money and the opportunity to lead startups are abundant, that’s rare. And challenging. Of the 10 members of Twitter’s executive team at the start of 2016, just three are still at the company. Since Snapchat went public 14 months ago, it has lost its CFO, VP of product, VP of sales, VP of engineering and its general counsel. Uber had to clean house before it ever got to an IPO, losing a number of top executives, including CEO Travis Kalanick, amid scandal last year.

So why do Facebook execs stay? It’s not the money — they’ve all made too much of it by now. It’s also not a lack of opportunity. Any relatively high-ranking Facebook executive could get a well-paying VC job or collect a VC check for whatever startup idea they come up with or join a budding startup with lots of fresh stock options.

The reason is less tangible, but more meaningful.

“It’s purpose and people,” CTO Mike Schroepfer, one of Facebook’s highest-ranking product executives, who joined the company in 2008, said from the San Jose Convention Center earlier this month at Facebook’s F8 developer conference. “Sheryl, Mark, Chris — throw a dart and you’ll find someone great,” he said, before adding how Facebook’s mission to connect the world — and its responsibility to do so safely — is “more important than ever.”

“I think I can make a difference,” he concluded. “I’ll be there until I or they decide that I can’t make that impact.”

Lately, Facebook’s impact has been incredibly negative. The revelation that Facebook was weaponized by the Russian government in an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election caused an internal crisis. Numerous former employees chastised the company’s power from the outside, while Facebook’s rank and file were left wondering whether or not their work helped to put Donald Trump in the White House. The more recent Cambridge Analytica scandal shed light on Facebook’s previously lax data privacy practices. The company has made numerous changes in the short time since, but the damage to Facebook’s reputation is done.

“When we learned our platform was abused and interfered with, that was super shocking to all of us,” said Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan in a recent interview with Recode. “[I was] shocked that we were abused. Angry that our platform was abused, manipulated.”

But even after 18 months of near-constant scandal, the company’s top ranks are intact. As part of the reorg, some executives took new jobs, some shifted into entirely new departments, but everybody stayed. It comes back to the impact you can have while working at Facebook. If employees are guilty of drinking the Kool-Aid, it’s these Facebook execs at the top who are concocting it.

“I totally get how bizarre it sounds,” said Caryn Marooney, Facebook’s VP of communications, who has been at the company since 2011 and just split her role leading the comms team as part of the recent reorg with another executive, Rachel Whetstone. On Fridays, after CEO Mark Zuckerberg answers questions at a weekly Q&A with all Facebook employees, the company shows a video highlighting a Facebook user impacted by the service. Marooney almost always cries.

“You can either be like, that is bizarre, or I find it grounding and an important life raft of what matters,” she said.

It’s sometimes hard to grasp Facebook’s massive scale. The site has more than 2.2 billion users worldwide. In fact, there are nearly as many people who actively use Facebook every month as there are followers of Christianity. Facebook’s 2017 revenue — around $40 billion — was more than the GDP of about 100 different countries. It’s not an exaggeration to think that second- and third-tier Facebook executives have a chance to impact more lives than most of the world’s elected politicians.

That impact has never been more apparent than it is right now. When Facebook’s data policies were exposed during the company’s recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, it affected tens of millions of people (so far). Even the notion that Facebook ads could have affected the 2016 election is a testament to the company’s influence.

We’ve seen this realization wash over Zuckerberg, who has publicly promised to “take a broader view of our responsibility.” But others in Facebook’s upper management believe the same.

“I think it’s more important than ever for us to get these issues right,” said Schroepfer. “To get the balance right, keep people safe but give tools to developers to build great experiences.”

“What’s changed is the gravity of responsibility,” added Naomi Gleit, one of Facebook’s longest-tenured employees and now a high-ranking product VP. Among her numerous job responsibilities is overseeing some of Facebook’s “integrity” efforts, or the company’s attempts to find and remove questionable content.

Gleit, 34, says Facebook’s post-election efforts to clean up security and user safety have touched every team inside the company. “I think it’s more hardcore than anything that’s happened in the past,” she added.

Gleit, a soft-spoken executive, would know. She is Facebook’s third-longest-tenured employee; she remembers a time when Zuckerberg was not recognizable in public. That changed around 2007 when she witnessed a stranger snapping a photo of Zuckerberg through the window of Antonio’s Nut House, a Palo Alto dive bar a few miles from Facebook’s first office at 471 Emerson.

“I was just so offended. I was like, ‘What the hell is this!?’” Gleit recalls. “Now he can’t go anywhere without getting approached. We’ve traveled together, and it’s like a mob scene.”

Like Gleit, most of Facebook’s highest-ranking executives knew Mark Zuckerberg before he became Mark Zuckerberg, an important aspect of the group’s tight relationship. Many are friends outside of work.

Facebook executives Chris Cox, Mark Zuckerberg and Naomi Gleit.
Facebook execs (L to R): Chris Cox, Mark Zuckerberg and Naomi Gleit

Zuckerberg and product boss Chris Cox live near one another in Palo Alto and vacation together. Gleit, one of the only women on staff during the company’s early days, became best friends with both of their wives, Priscilla Chan (Zuckerberg) and Visra Vichit-Vadakan (Cox). The three of them do an annual girls’ trip, jetting to places in Italy, Colorado and Texas.

Gleit is also close with her colleagues on what used to be Facebook’s growth team (it has since expanded). Gleit called her crew — which includes her boss and VP of Growth Javier Olivan and VP of Analytics Alex Schultz — “The Three Musketeers.”

“I would kind of do anything with them,” Gleit said. “If they told me and Javi and Alex to work on cleaning the toilets, I would say, ‘Okay.’”

These friendships matter, in part because they can make a difference in how Facebook decisions get made. “The closer you are to ‘original Mark,’ the better you understand him,” explained one former employee.

Zuckerberg can be swayed. But it helps to know how he operates. Zuckerberg is, as early Facebook exec-turned-Benchmark investor Matt Cohler says, a total “learn-it-all.”

He asks a lot of questions, and he wants to talk to people who have the answers — even if those people are rank-and-file employees. The best way to change his mind is to show him compelling data or to understand how your argument appeals to Facebook’s broader mission.

“As people get more senior in the company ... they run the risk of not having an accurate feedback loop,” Gleit explained. “People might [only] tell them what they want to hear. I think we really see our jobs as helping Mark and other leaders at the company have an accurate feedback loop. We’ll tell Mark what we think is right, not what he wants to hear.”

When Facebook was first building its messaging service, Zuckerberg wanted to make it like email, with features like attachments. “The whole world was switching to mobile messaging,” Gleit recalled. “Not another email client on Facebook. That was the wrong strategy.”

She believes the growth team — The Three Musketeers — helped change his mind by pushing him to look at the rise of iMessage, WhatsApp and other mobile messaging services cropping up around the world.

“Definitely, there are disagreements with Mark,” she added. “And I think Mark, to his credit, is very open to that.” Facebook now owns two mobile messaging apps, each with more than 1.3 billion users.

That partly explains why people stay. No one besides Zuckerberg is going to be Facebook’s CEO. But the ability to convince the CEO? That’s a possibility for almost all Facebook executives.

What happens next?

Having a close-knit executive team can be a benefit or an added challenge, depending on who you ask.

“When you know someone really well, you know how to talk to them. You know who they are, and you know how to listen to them,” Cox told Recode earlier this month. “So much of working with somebody is communicating what you care about and why. Knowing somebody well means you [don’t] have to get to the bottom of what someone’s motivations are every time you interact.”

Gleit thinks it can be tough.

“I think there are pros and cons of working with people that you’ve grown up with, they’ve sort of become like family,” she said. “I think that can make it harder sometimes. We disagree, we fight, it’s hard.”

“But at the end of the day you can’t quit your family,” she added.

Facebook VP of Social Good Naomi Gleit.
Facebook VP of Social Good Naomi Gleit.
Kevin Mazur / Contributor

Facebook did lose two big-name executives this year — WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum and hardware boss Regina Dugan — but neither were part of Zuckerberg’s original circle. Plus, Koum joined via an acquisition. CEOs who sell rarely transition into CEOs who stay.

But eventually, someone from Facebook’s management team will leave. And it will be interesting to see what happens when they do.

One carrot that Facebook can dangle for senior executives is the promise of new, bigger opportunities inside the company. We saw that play out in the reshuffle, in which lots of people got new jobs without actually leaving Facebook.

Messenger boss David Marcus is now running a new blockchain team. News Feed boss Adam Mosseri is headed to Instagram. One of Cox’s top product lieutenants, Will Cathcart, is now running all product for Facebook’s core app. It’s unclear how much those moves came at the executives’ request or whether they were reassigned. But in any case, they’re getting a chance to do something entirely new without actually leaving the company.

Deb Liu, who has been with Facebook since 2009, bounced around the company for years in various roles, including helping build Facebook’s app-install ad business. But two years ago, she got the green light to build her passion project, a Craigslist-style commerce platform where people can buy and sell physical goods to people who live nearby. She had been pitching the idea for years.

“I actually pitched in my interview that we should have a marketplace here,” Liu told Recode. “This is the thing I wanted to build here, even when I was building everything else.”

The company approved her plan, and now the product — called Marketplace — has 800 million monthly users.

The chance to build an idea inside Facebook — and at Facebook’s scale — is yet another factor in why Facebook executives rarely leave. In a podcast with LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman last year, Zuckerberg talked about how he likes to bring new executives into Facebook a few rungs below the top team, even if they were on the management team at their previous role. Here’s how he explained the impact:

“[That] ends up being really powerful for the culture in a number of ways. One is that, by the time you build this management team of people who have been in the company, they’ve all been working together and they know how to get things done — and there’s good trust, and good alignment on values. The other thing that’s really powerful is, it sends the signal to everyone else in the company that they can be those people in a few years if they do good work and really excel. I think that that’s pretty powerful too ... Everyone who’s going to be a VP or product group lead here really needs to earn that.”

Facebook is no longer just Facebook. It’s WhatsApp and Instagram and Messenger and Oculus and election integrity and Cambridge Analytica and the free-speech police all around the world. That’s the lens through which insiders now view the company.

“I don’t have to be here. I really don’t,” Gleit said. “I would love to move to LA, to be honest. I love surfing. I just picked up surfing.”

Gleit lit up at the thought of a coastal sojourn, but she’s also aware of the responsibility that comes with working at one of the most-watched corporations in the world.

“The stakes are more intense than ever,” she said. “I’ll surf on the weekends.”

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