The Art and Science of Leadership at Scale: 3 Lessons from Sheryl Sandberg

Reid Hoffman
5 min readJun 5, 2018

Companies need different kinds of leadership at different stages. And there’s a very specific kind of leadership needed in an organization that’s changing fast — so fast that the office you leave at night is different from the one you walk into the next morning. I believe to lead this kind of organization to scale, you have to be as skilled at breaking plans as you are at making them.

Every day, there are new competitors, new threats, new opportunities. There’s no simple, straightforward set of marching orders. It’s more like a dogfight. You and your team will be flying upside down and at an angle sometimes.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg knows as much about this kind of leadership as anyone I know. She’s one of those gifted leaders who’s made daring decisions at every level of scale. She can run a team of 4 or 400 or 40,000. I wanted to talk to her about leading a company as it scales, because she is the archetype for this kind of leader. You’ll frequently hear investors, like me, say to founders: “We need to find you your Sheryl Sandberg.”

Sheryl understands the combination of foresight and flexibility it takes to succeed at scale — the necessity of both making and breaking plans. Here are 3 lessons from Sandberg from our conversation on Masters of Scale. In each episode, we explore how companies grow from zero to a gazillion. You can subscribe on Apple podcasts or find all of the conversations here.

Leadership Lesson #1: Great leaders create open communication cultures.

“When our team was growing, I interviewed everyone who joined globally. And when we were at 100 people I noticed that the queue for my interview was kind of holding up our hiring process. So I said in a meeting with my direct reports, ‘I think maybe I should stop interviewing,’ fully expecting that they would jump right in and say, ‘Absolutely not. You’re a great interviewer. We need your personal recommendation on anyone on your team.’

You know what they did? They applauded. And I thought to myself, ‘I’ve become a bottleneck, and you didn’t tell me — and that’s on me.”

The BIGGER Picture: ​Notice what Sheryl focuses on here. She isn’t bothered by her team applauding her decision to step aside. She’s disturbed by the fact that no one told her the truth. She knows she needs everyone’s honest input to make frequent, fast decisions. And that kind of openness doesn’t happen on its own. Leaders have to embrace truth-telling. Especially when they learn that they are the problem.

Leadership Lesson #2: Hire for roles that never existed before.

“When I was interviewing for jobs, I had a really nice experience with Meg Whitman [CEO of Hewlett Packard and former CEO of eBay]. ​When I got to see her, I just said, ‘I don’t have any relevant experience.’ And she said, ‘No one has any experience, because no one’s ever done this before.’

I really took that lesson to heart. I don’t look for people with online ad sales experience. And that’s a good thing, because [at the time of building Google’s Adwords team] there was no one with online ad sales experience.

We needed to hire really quickly. So we started that ‘temp-to-hire’ program. We just hired people as temps. And then we would evaluate them over the course of the first month, two months, and then we would convert the most successful of them to full-time. It was a great way to scale in those very early days, when we needed a lot of work done very quickly. It also got us to hire people we probably would have otherwise not hired: people who didn’t necessarily interview well, people who didn’t necessarily have the background that Google was always looking for. But they came in and did great work.”

The BIGGER Picture: Bright young founders, listen carefully: As you scale up, you’ll have to start swapping out “generalists” — those jacks-of-all-trades on which small start-ups rely — with “specialists” — experienced executives who know how to lead massive teams. I’ve seen companies swap upwards of a third of their managers in 18 months. In the early startup stage, you need all-rounders who love to get their hands dirty. Later on, you need polished managers who know how to delegate. Not everyone makes it through every company turn, and not everyone is destined to be a manager. Some people are best as individual contributors — as an engineer, not as a VP of Engineering. The key to keeping a happy team as you scale is to give your employees a frame to understand what’s going on.

Leadership Lesson #3: Seek respectful disagreement (and embrace failure).

“We all need resilience. We need resilience as individuals, and the way you build a resilient organization is you learn from failure. You don’t hide it, you embrace it. So, what does that mean? You have to get real feedback for yourself, for each other. You have to be open to feedback. You have to ask for feedback. You have to build in a culture where, when I think you need to do something better, or you think I need to do something better — we tell each other, and tell each other directly, and work it out.

You have to embrace organizational failure. You have to sit down and debrief when things go wrong. Why did they go wrong? What can we learn, and what can we do better? It’s organizations that hide things under the rug that don’t create the resilience because they don’t learn.”

The BIGGER Picture: This willingness to acknowledge failure and embrace disagreement is a critical advantage in a fast-moving industry because it allows you to see mistakes earlier, so you can know what to tear down and what to build up. Thoughtful scale leaders thrive on disagreement because it gives them the information they need to test their ideas before they make and break plans. Indeed, they seek out colleagues who won’t share their point of view. Employees may disagree passionately about a dramatic change of plans. What matters is how you have the debate and what happens afterwards.

Like These Lessons?

Hear the entire Masters of Scale episode with Sheryl Sandberg; it talks in detail about the theory: that in order to lead a fast-changing organization, you have to be as skilled at breaking plans as you are at making them.