Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg turns 32 years young next week.
Of course, an even younger Zuckerberg was the subject of a major Hollywood film called The Social Network. With the lights, camera, and action squarely focused on events leading up to company’s 2004 inception, it can sometimes be easy to forget what Facebook has accomplished since its founding. Which is quite a lot. As of late March, Facebook had more than 13,000 employees, more than 1 billion daily users, and nearly $5.4 billion in quarterly revenues.
In short, it’s been a staggering, dozen-year rocket ride for Zuckerberg and Facebook. And yet, if you’re a budding entrepreneur or an aspiring founder, it might actually be hard to consider Zuckerberg as a feasible role model. You might say to yourself: Facebook’s astonishing success is a once-in-a-lifetime, right-place-right-time kind of thing–what lessons could I possibly learn from it?
But from Zuckerberg’s career, you can, in fact, glean a crucial lesson about the importance of relationship building–especially with potential mentors. As it happens, his roster of mentors includes luminaries like Bill Gates and Marc Andreessen. And it included Steve Jobs, before Jobs’ untimely passing. “People always ask, How does [Zuckerberg] have the wisdom of someone 20 years older?” leadership expert Bill George once told me. “The answer is, he sought out really good mentors, early on.”
George describes Zuckerberg’s approach in his leadership book Discover Your True North, a 2015 update to his 2007 classic True North. George, himself the highly successful CEO of Medtronic, a medical device and technology company, from 1991 to 2001, notes that for Zuckerberg, the key was finding mentors he’d truly respect–and actually listen to. In the Facebook era, Zuckerberg’s first major mentor was Don Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Company, whom Zuckerberg met in 2005.
Their relationship began when Graham offered to invest $6 million in Facebook. Zuckerberg accepted, only to renege when Accel Partners offered to invest at a higher valuation. Yet Graham, rather than feeling snubbed, was impressed with how Zuckerberg handled the situation. Later that year, Zuckerberg shadowed Graham for several days to learn how a CEO ought to behave. The relationship deepened. One benefit? Graham advised Zuckerberg to hire COO Sheryl Sandberg and encouraged Sandberg to accept the position, even though she’d be reporting to someone younger.
Graham benefited from the relationship, too, learning from Zuckerberg about online initiatives that would engage Washington Post readers. More than this, Zuckerberg’s relationship with Graham formed a template Zuckerberg would rely on in seeking mentorship from others, including Gates and Andreessen.
As for Jobs, reports of Zuckerberg’s relationship with him resurfaced last year, in the wake of news that Zuckerberg, early in the Facebook era, had gained insights and wisdom from a month-long trip to India. Here’s Zuckerberg’s explanation of what happened, according to Business Insider:
Early on in our history when things weren’t really going well–we had hit a tough patch and a lot of people wanted to buy Facebook–I went and I met with Steve Jobs, and he said that to reconnect with what I believed was the mission of the company, I should go visit this temple in India that he had gone to early in the evolution of Apple, when he was thinking about what he wanted his vision of the future to be….That reinforced to me the importance of what we were doing, and that is something I will always remember.
If you’re an entrepreneur, the takeaway here is not necessarily to go to India. Even though it’s likely such a trip, if you can actually afford it while living the founder’s life, would help you gain the perspective anyone would gain through an immersion in another culture.
Rather, the takeaway is this: For the cost of a cup of a coffee–or maybe a meal–you should check in with your mentors or reach out to someone with whom you can potentially cultivate a mentor relationship. Often, you don’t have to cross the ocean to gain insight and perspective. You just have to network with people you really respect. And listen to what they say.
And if you think Zuckerberg’s relationship-building chops are limited to celebrity mentors, think again. Two years ago, after Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp made huge news, the New York Times reported that Zuckerberg and WhatsApp co-founder and CEO Jan Koum negotiated the deal over a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries at Zuckerberg’s house.
Think about this. When was the last time you visited someone’s house and ate chocolate-covered strawberries? Does that seem like something likely to happen during a rigorous due diligence process? Or does it require a certain level of familiarity and friendship?
As it turns out, Zuckerberg and Koum are friends. In recent years, noted the Times, they’d shared dinners and gone on hikes together. And while Koum had 19 billion reasons to choose Facebook’s offer, there was evidence that this deal was about more than money–for both the buyer and the seller. It was about the alignment of long-term visions. Indeed, Facebook assured Koum that WhatsApp would remain ad free–and gave him a seat on Facebook’s board.
The $19-billion figure justifiably dominated the headlines. But you could argue that the deal–and Zuckerberg’s overall success, for that matter–is just as much a tribute to his talent for cultivating connections. If he’s having a birthday party next week, you can bet it will be well-attended.
@ Ilan Mochari