Meet Lori Goler, the woman who runs “People Operations” at the world’s most admired employer.
One simple question drove a sharp pivot in Lori Goler’s already enviable career: “How can I help you?” Of course, when the question is asked of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the chances are better such a detour might follow. “What’s your biggest business obstacle,” Goler remembers asking Sandberg in 2007, early in Facebook’s startup days. “How can I help?” Sandberg’s instant reply: “Recruitment.”
A seasoned marketing executive, Goler nevertheless took the challenge, and has since helped Facebook scale from 500 employees to more than 15,000. Along the way she’s implemented industry-leading approaches to parental leave, long-term contracts (Facebook doesn’t do them), and career management (the company encourages ‘individual contributors’ as a career choice, to avoid the trap of management being the only way to advance inside the company).
We spoke to Goler at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center studios late last year, what follows is a text transcript and video interview, both edited for length and clarity.
John Battelle: You have a great story about how you ended up at Facebook. Can you tell us that story?
Lori Goler: Sure. I’ve worked in tech for a while…I was working in a marketing role prior to coming to Facebook. One morning on my commute to work, heard an interview of Mark talking about the mission of Facebook. Of course, I knew Facebook because it was a great way for us to reach — at that time — the college audience.
What year was this?
That was in 2007. I thought, “That sounds really interesting. I love the social mission of Facebook, it sounds really interesting.” I tucked it away in the back of my head, if there were ever an opportunity. The following spring, Sheryl Sandberg said that she was headed to Facebook.
I noticed and I thought, “Well, that must mean that they’re turning attention towards the business side. Maybe I’ll just give her a call and see what they need.” I called and asked her what her biggest issue was on the business side, and whether there was anything I might be able to help with.
She said, “Yes, it’s recruiting. Can you come help us with recruiting?” which was not what I expected her to say at the time. The company was about 500 people at the time. It’s about 15,000 now.
15,000, that’s significant. When Sheryl asked you to help her with recruiting, did you come in in the position that you’re in now?
No, I came into the Head of Recruiting role and was reporting to a guy named Chris Cox, who now is our Head of Product, of course. At the time he was running the people organization. Just a few months later Chris moved over to take the Head of Product role. Chris is, of course, an engineer, trained at Stanford and he’s been at Facebook for a very long time now, and continues to be the heart and soul of the company.
Chief Human Resources Officers of large companies have organizations and conferences. This was not a world that you were necessarily deeply familiar with?
Not at all, no. [laughs]
Was that a positive or a negative? Or both?
I don’t know if it was necessarily a positive or negative. What Facebook was, I think, looking for was just a way to take it forward in a way that was right for Facebook. Of course, I’ve managed teams and lead organizations but I had never done it from the HR organization, I’d always done it from other parts of the organization.
You didn’t have the specialized knowledge of decades of human resources management. What was the challenge when there were 500 people, and you guys were growing at what must’ve been torrid pace?
I think there were several things. One was just building for scale, but one was something I was already familiar with, which was marketing. How do you get the word out about what it’s like to work at Facebook?
What we found was that people, when they came to our offices to meet with us, were really excited about what we were doing, what the mission was, about working with the fantastic people who were there. But, we hadn’t yet gotten the word out about what it meant to work at Facebook, which helped us in the scaling, helped us to tell a story.
In marketing, it’s the same thing. You want to identify your audience and your target customers, you want to understand what their needs are. This rule is very similar to that. A different target audience, different customers, but large part of my role is understanding what our people want, what’s important to them and what’s meaningful.
How do you find the right people? Is there some approach that you take that’s unique?
We are really looking for builders, because we consider ourselves at the very beginning of our journey. We always say we’re one percent done on this journey.
What that means is that we are looking for people who have shown that they love to build things, who will come in, they’ll look at something that we’re working on, or something that we need to build and they’ll think, “That works pretty well, but I bet it can be even better” and they’ll set about trying to do that.
What goes along with that is a learning mindset. We really need people who are open to learning — people need to able to use what they’ve learned in the past and really build on it, rather than just staying at a steady state.
I’ve been to Facebook many times. I know you guys don’t necessarily release the average age of everyone that works there.
Not many companies do. But it is quite clear, just from looking around the place, that they’re young. That’s a unique group of people, the largest group to ever enter the workforce. Is there a certain sensibility about that generation and that age group that permeates Facebook?
I think Facebook is actually great for all generations. What makes the current generation different from my generation, for example, is that they’re willing to ask for what they want, which I never was. My generation didn’t ask for what they wanted, we just showed up at work and did what we were asked to do.
What we found in our data, when we look internally, it’s what’s important to people and what creates fulfillment, it’s actually very similar across all generations. The difference is that the people that have recently come in to the workforce have been very comfortable talking about it and asking for it. That’s really changed the way companies need to think about the value proposition they’re providing.
I think if you look at the students who are in school now, down to middle school, so the next tranche of folks who will be coming to us, our summer interns, they’re interested in even something a little bit different, which is something more focused on social good, and social entrepreneurialism, and social capitalism. That’s where our mission really helps us, puts us in a good position.
Say a little bit more about this generation, what else do they want from work that is distinct?
I would say they’re looking for a really meaningful experience. They’re looking for a place where they can do work they enjoy, where they can play to their strengths, where they can make real impact. Every role at Facebook has real impact, which is not necessarily true at every company.
What we found is that, as we’d broken apart the component parts of fulfillment, it’s doing work you enjoy, it’s having real impact in your role, it’s doing something that’s meaningful in the world in a positive way, and it’s the ability to learn, having the opportunity to learn and grow.
When you bring all those things together, you have a sense of fulfillment at work that I think other generations haven’t been willing to ask for, or haven’t given as much thought to.
Is there something that’s different about the company or the space the company’s in that allows that to be true at Facebook?
I think there are a couple of things. The first is of course our mission, which is that we’re a very mission-driven company, “To make the world more open and connected.” That’s true across the family of apps and all of our products and everything it is that we’re doing internally. I think people really connect to that.
I also think that almost everybody has their own Facebook story or their own Instagram story or the reason that WhatsApp’s important to them in their lives. I think they really connect to that. I think that’s a really important piece of it. In addition to that, we’re a strengths-based organization, which means we really do want people in roles that play to their strengths, doing work they enjoy.
Is that a thing, strengths-based organization or is that something…?
It’s a thing that’s not very common.
Tell me what that means.
Being a strengths-based organization is a place where you are really looking to put people in roles where they are doing work they enjoy that plays to their strengths. I think that’s where you get outlier engagement. I think it’s where you get outlier performance and all of the data shows that as well.
It’s where you get the best teamwork. It’s where the people are able to do the best work of their lives. We hope that we are able to create that for everyone who’s working at who’s working at Facebook. I’ll give managers as an example.
There are lots of different ways to identify future managers in your organization. The way we do it is by asking people whether or not they want to be managers. I think your best managers are the people who actually want to manage.
For that reason, we’ve created a dual career track. You can either be an individual contributor or a manager, all the way up through the organization. You don’t have to become a manager to be promoted or to move up or to continue learning. I think that’s one example of being able to put people in roles that play to their strengths and interest.
The typical company, people wait and hope to be tapped as managers. Some people maybe never want to be a manager, but they do get tapped to be a manager.
Or you have to become a manager in order to be promoted or to make progress in your career. I think that’s a prime motivator in a lot of places for being a manager. But that isn’t where you get your best management.
Facebook’s been named consistently by lots of different organizations, “The best place to work.” What’s its secret sauce in terms of a place to work? What’s its culture like?
I think the secret sauce of Facebook is the people and the mission, and the way that those two things come together and the way that unites us in a really powerful way. I think you have a lot of people who are very good at what they do, who are in roles that play to their strengths, who are doing work they enjoy with people they respect and that they learn from.
They’re all doing it in service of the mission, “To make the world more open and connected.” In addition to that, we are a very open company. One of our core values is, “Be open,” which means that you show up on your very first day.
We tell you absolutely everything that’s happening in the company. There are no secrets about what’s happening. You learn. You see the product roadmap. You understand right away what the culture is.
Part of the thing that’s great about the culture is this tremendous openness. In addition, we’re really focused on moving fast. We’re very focused on impact, so we really want everyone to be in a role that creates impact in the organization and that matters. I think people really feel that.
Openness can only go so far. What’s interesting is if you think about a company like Apple, I don’t think open, I think closed. I’ve had many friends who’ve gone into Apple, and I just stop hearing from them. An open culture is possibly a dangerous culture because if you give people access to a product roadmap, it can leak out. But I haven’t really seen that happen. Is that a concern?
For us, the mission is, “To make the world more open and connected,” so it makes sense that our culture is open and connected. Then internally, we reflect that culture.
What we find is that what it really means is that people have all the context they need to be able to work with great autonomy in the organization, which of course leads to greater innovation and greater impact. It’s been a virtuous cycle for us.
Sheryl came from Google, and many people at Facebook came from Google. Now many people at other startups came from Facebook. There’s this cycling of people. You came through eBay. Google in particular had some interesting characteristics, which codified what Google was like as a workplace. One of them was this concept of 20 percent time. Is there anything similar at Facebook where people can work on side projects that might be a little crazy?
One of the things that really defines our culture are the hackathons. We say we’re a culture of builders or hackers. Every month (or) couple of months, we have people who are planning hackathons — often themed hackathons.
It’s a period of time when the only rule, really, is that you can’t work on something that’s part of your day job. People spend a lot of time thinking about what it is they want to build. They identify teammates across the organization they want to do it with.
We set aside this time when that’s what they do. They actually go off and build things. They build prototypes. It’s not about putting together presentations or pitching an idea. It’s about actually building something. We always say, “Code wins arguments.”
How does one best to present themselves to be well-received and potentially hired by a place like Facebook?
I do think we’re looking for builders. We’re really looking for people. We’re not looking at grades. We’re not looking at SAT scores.
That was another thing that Google was very famous for — they had a GPA threshold.
Right, that’s not Facebook. [laughs] At Facebook, we’re really looking for people who love to build. What we find is that people who love to build, build.
They have side projects that they do at school, or in addition to their summer internship, or they’re in a role at another company, but they’ve also built an app on the side, or they have great examples of things they’ve built and done in their current roles or in past roles. I think those are really great ways to showcase the builder mentality and the ability to learn.
I read about something which broke out on the internal networks of Facebook called #fbfamily? What is that?
#fbfamily came out of actually an experience that a woman had a couple of years ago at Facebook, where she became very ill and she needs to take some time away. One of the things about Facebook, of course, is that we use Facebook internally every day, all day. We have more groups than we have people.
People are very active on it, and they share authentically. She shared very openly on Facebook for all of us to see what her illness was and what she’d plan for her course of treatment, when she’d be back at work. Her colleagues and friends at Facebook rallied around. There were hundreds of comments. People created a video for her that they then posted. It was that song “Happy.”
Lots of different, probably dozens if not hundreds of people were in the video. People started tagging all of those videos and all of the comments #fbfamily. I don’t know who developed it at first…
… As it always is with these things.
But it caught fire. It really became viral across the organization. Now, anytime that something comes up where someone has something going on or you’re celebrating something that’s happening in a friend or colleague’s life, fbfamily is what it’s tagged.
It reflects, I think, how close we all are personally, and how there are so many really strong friendships across the organization, and how it really feels like your family.
Do you worry about that as you scale past 10,000, and then 15,000 employees? How do you hold on to that culture?
I’ve been asked this question since the very day I joined. “We’re 500 people, what will it be like when we’re 1,000, or 1,000, what will it be like when we’re 2,000?” What I would say is the amazing thing about the Facebook culture is every single person owns the Facebook culture.
Even in the room where we welcome new people every single Monday, there’s a giant mural that says, “This is your company now.” Most of the orientation experience, the first two days, is about helping people understand what Facebook is, what is the culture, what’s it like to work here? What’s our roadmap? How do you engage and contribute to that culture?
Then everybody walks away owning the culture. It isn’t that we have a culture team or one person who owns the culture, it’s really of 15,000 around the world who feel like they own the culture, and they contribute to it all the time. Again, that’s where using Facebook internally really, really helps us.
One other staple of Valley human resource management is the OKR, objectives and key results. It’s been adopted by a lot of the larger companies and many of the startups in the Valley. Is this something that Facebook uses?
We don’t specifically use OKRs, but we certainly are results-focused and are focused on impact. I think a lot of the reason companies that had OKRs in the past is for the purpose of performance reviews and performance summaries.
We do have a performance summary process. We often go out into the organization and ask people how it’s going and ask for ideas and feedback on the system. What we found is the vast majority of people want to keep our system. At a time when a lot of companies are walking from these systems.
What we found they really like about it is the transparency and fairness of the system and the fact that it’s focused primarily on development and opportunities in growth and helping people to play to their strengths, rather than identifying the areas where they have great weaknesses. I think for all those reasons, we’re pretty happy with the system we have and we’re going to stick to it for now.
You’ve had some industry leading approaches to policy, parental leave is a good example of that. Do you think that some of these approaches that Facebook has taken are going to spread throughout corporate America?
One of our goals is just being sure that we’re a place that’s great for families, which is where the parental leave comes from. We are very focused on understanding what’s happening across our group of people and doing the things that are right for our group of people and for our business.
The parental leave is fantastic for lots of reasons. Of course, it supports men and women as they enter the state where they’re having families. But it also levels the playing field for women who are taking leave because once all the men start taking leave, it doesn’t seem at all unusual that a woman is taking leave.
It really changes the dynamic in the organization. It takes something that I think historically has been hard for women in the workplace, and really levels the playing field by making it available to everyone.
I really hope that some of the things we’re doing work well enough that maybe it will inspire other organizations, but that isn’t our primary goal.
It’s broadly understood that we have a shortage of engineering talent — it’s an existential problem in the Valley. Talent is now being treated like star athletes. People are signing long-term contracts, they’re getting huge money. How do you handicap the talent situation in the Valley?
We think that the free movement of talent is a really important part of the technology industry. We think that it benefits the people who are working in the industry and it benefits companies that are doing their best work to keep the people they have or to attract new people. The competition is healthy. It’s good for the whole industry.
We have not employed things like long-term contracts. What we do is we focus on what matters to our people. We try to provide that. We try to provide a value proposition that gives you an opportunity to do really the best work of your career in the time that you’re at Facebook. We hope that that will continue to work for us.
What can be done from a policy standpoint to fill the pipeline with diverse engineering talent?
It’s a probably much longer conversation about education in United States. But the primary thing that we’re doing is we’re focused on getting new people into engineering.
Even today, 17, 18 percent of college graduates in Computer Science are women. In 1985, that number was 35 percent. Not only is it headed in the wrong direction, it’s headed in the wrong direction by half. If you just had the same number of women participating in Computer Science as you have men, it would largely eliminate what is now and will soon be a basic mismatch in supply and demand.
Of course that’s true for all underrepresented minorities. If you’ll look at the numbers of African Americans who are taking the APCS exam, there are some states where there are none. Part of what we’re doing is investing in that pipeline and trying to bring new people who have historically not been represented in engineering roles into engineering roles.
This relates to the concept of unconscious bias. Facebook is part of the transparency movement, where you release diversity figures, and they just don’t look good. Not just Facebook, everybody in the tech industry. Part of the problem is this idea of unconscious bias. Is this something that as a manager of people at Facebook, you train into?
We do. We’re very aware of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias, of course, is something everyone has. The people who have probably the most are the people who don’t think they have any. One of the most important things is just helping people understand what it is and what it means and how it impacts decisions you make in daily life.
Can you define it for me? You probably thought about it a bit more than I have.
I think it’s just the stereotypes and are deep in your unconscious that underlie…It used to help people identify when there was a lion coming to attack you, so that you knew to run right away. Of course, over time, that’s not what we use it for anymore, at least in big cities.
Now, I think it still lives right there under the surface. It can be informed or impacted by lots of things that have happened in your life or by the media or by the images that you see out in the world. Part of what we’ve tried to do is to help people at Facebook understand that everybody has it.
We’ve tried to define it for them. We created a class. We did not make it mandatory, but 100 percent of our senior leadership and more than 70 percent of the company have all been through it including all the new people. In fact, they’re asking for even more of it because it’s been pretty helpful. We do see behavioral change.
For example, I’ll often have women tell me that they’re in a meeting with men in the room where they may be the only woman in the room. They’ll be cut-off in the middle of something that they’re trying to say. What happens now is one of the men in the room will say, “Hang on, I’d like to hear what she said. Let’s let her finish.”
They’re actually interrupting the interrupters. That’s exactly a concept that we cover in the class. It’s something that I think is really important for organizations to understand. In fact, there was so much demand for it that we actually taped it and recorded it. Then made it available publicly.
Interesting. Along those lines, I read that you, in the last year or so, conducted a survey of what makes the best managers at Facebook. Can you tell us what you learned from that?
Sure. We’re always looking to see what’s going well in the organization so that we can help to amplify and develop that. One of the things we noticed is that some of our strongest teams are led by some of our strongest managers. We went out into the organization to find out what was going on.
We tried to identify — both from the people who are those managers and the people who are their teams — what they do that’s different from everyone else. What we found is that — one thing, of course — is that they want to be managers. It goes back to the strengths-based organization.
In addition to that, there are certain things that they do that make them very strong managers. One of them is that they show care for their people. They actually care about what’s happening to their people.
They’re focused on developing their teams. They give frequent feedback. They set context so that everybody knows exactly what’s happening in the organization. They’re very clear about the results and the goals that people need to achieve. They really help people clear a path. They provide coaching to the people on their teams.
It’s less prescriptive and directive, I think, than, historically, what a manager role is. It’s more about helping people to realize their full potential in the organization.
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