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Former Facebook CEO Stephen Scheeler’s advice on strategy, growth and using curiosity as your super power

The Leadership Institute /

“I wore a backpack in my 20s, a suit in my 30s, and jeans in my 40s.” That’s how former-Facebook CEO, Stephen Scheeler, describes his career journey, a classic recipe for Silicon Valley success it seems and not too dissimilar to the work attire of his former colleague Mark Zuckerberg.

Scheeler has more than 25 years of experience across a number of industries but most notably, working in the hyper-growth phase of Facebook where he helped take Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Oculus from startup phase to some of the most successful markets in the world.

And now he wants to help the next generation of leaders and share his knowledge and expertise on strategy and leadership in our disruptive world.

Ahead of his inaugural workshop “The Eight Elements of Disruptive Leadership”, Scheeler discusses why startups fail, how to cope as a small business in a digital world, and why curiosity and a passion to learn and develop new skills is integral to any business leader’s success.

Stephen started the conversation by offering two bits of advice for business leaders:

“First, never stop learning. And by this I mean, deeply, obsessively learning. Cruise control becomes the default mental setting for too many of us as we grow older and achieve success. I truly believe curiosity is a superpower which many of us don’t realise we have.”

“Second, dare to dream. Whether it’s for your personal life, your family, your career or your business, having a big vision can inspire and drive you in ways a “strategy” or “plan” never will.”

Stephen Scheeler  is running “The Eight Elements of Disruptive Leadership” course on 7 August in Sydney. It’s a full day training course that will help you develop the strategies and skills you need to lead in today’s commercial environment. SmartCompany subscribers will receive 20% off registrations when they use the code “SMART”. 

Has leadership changed since you first entered the workplace?

Absolutely! When I started out in business, leadership was still very grounded in experience and domain-specific expertise. In those days, to be a “leader” often meant that you had to be the smartest person in the room, with the most grey hair – or at least convince others that you were. But this has evolved over the years, and today’s leaders tend to be better at EQ than IQ. Characteristics like empathy, listening, collaboration, authenticity, openness, adaptability, humility – these are the new hallmarks of great leaders.

Given this change, what are the key skills you think are needed today then?

I’ve been asked this question countless times. So, recently, I sat down and really thought about my answer, and I boiled it down to eight elements which I think every leader needs to master to be successful in the 21st century: vision, humility, curiosity, transparency, adaptability, data dexterity, customer obsession, and speed.

None of these elements are really new, but the dynamics of consumers and competition today have changed the impact and importance of all of them.

I think many leaders can over-pivot to focus on the technologies behind digital disruption, when they should also be addressing the sort of fundamental leadership skills which I try to capture in the eight elements.

You’ve worked across large and small organisations, in your experience why do they fail?

First, we should recognise that companies fail for many reasons: wrong strategy, wrong execution, smarter competitors, poor decisions, lack of funds, lack of talent, moving too slowly, bad luck.

That said, I think there are two concerning trends in why businesses are failing to grow or even survive in the 21st century.

The first is a lack of humility and curiosity, which often manifests itself as arrogance or hubris. Successful companies have always been prone to this tendency, but the speed and power of technology today means that arrogance can be punished by customers and competitors in a flash.

You have to look no further than media and retail to see this playing out. The likes of both Netflix and Amazon were only recently dismissed by established rivals as irrelevancies. For example, in 2010, the CEO of Time Warner dismissed any threat from the new streaming upstart, Netflix, which was then worth a fraction of the Time Warner empire. But today, just eight years later, Netflix is double the market cap of Time Warner.

The second is a lack of speed. So many companies today simply move too slowly. For example, it took 14 years for TV to build to 50 million viewers, but it took WeChat only 4 months to hit 50 million users. That’s 42 times faster!

Few incumbent businesses today are 42 times faster than they were a few decades ago, but many of their digital-native competitors build speed as a feature of their business, not an outcome.

Not enough companies think hard about time as a scarce resource that they need to measure, conserve, enrich and optimise.

There are new companies, startups and scaleups looking to disrupt as you mentioned above, but many don’t realise their full potential. Why do you think that is?

One word: competition.

Though few recognise it, businesses actually compete in three arenas simultaneously: with other businesses, with their own customers (for cut-through, share of mind and share of wallet) and with the clock. Each one of these arenas demand careful thought and attention, but many businesses don’t think this way.

To truly be disruptive, you have to bring speed and power to each of these arenas. For example, versus competitors, you need to innovate and bring new products to market faster; with customers, you need to create magic moments constantly and be relentlessly focused on removing friction; against the clock, you need to remove all obstacles to moving fast, failing fast and learning fast.

Being “disruptive” is not simply about having a big, technology-driven idea – it’s about mastering these three arenas of competition simultaneously.

So, what advice do you have for startup readers out there looking to grow their business?

Learn from others. Turn on your curiosity, and turn off distractions. One way to do this is to find people you can learn from and then hoover up as much as you can.

Building personal networks is a big part of this: spending time with people and tapping into their brains and experience. Remember, curiosity is a superpower!

Some business owners and leaders have great ideas, great businesses but aren’t ‘digitally or tech-savvy’, what is your advice to them?

Leaders in incumbent businesses are in a tough spot right now. The formula for success that got them here probably won’t get them there, so these leaders need to reinvent themselves.

To my mind, this is where the eight elements of disruptive leadership come to the fore: vision, humility, curiosity, transparency, adaptability, data dexterity, customer obsession, and speed.

Keeping up with the latest tech news is helpful, but these fundamental characteristics of modern leadership are the key to thriving in the new business world.

If you’re a reader and are thinking “I know it’s important but I’m not digitally focused, tech savvy or astute to market trends, what can I do? Am I doomed?”

Hardly. You have a wealth of experience and knowledge in your head, but what you’ve probably done is become too much a pattern-recognition machine, comfortable in a well-worn approach to assessing and solving problems.

This has nothing to do with being “digital” or “tech savvy”. It has everything to do with solving problems for customers and creating and delivering value, which you are probably better at than you think. You can reignite your curiosity and add some enhanced skills (e.g. data dexterity, customer obsession) to your already strong base.

The key is recognising what needs to be done and then proactively building these new muscles.

The Leadership Institute

The Leadership Institute is a cross-industry membership association based on the four key skill sets of modern leadership. Ethics & Trust | Innovation & Technology | Inclusions & Equality | Strategy & Purpose Based on these founding pillars, we curate bespoke training courses, workshops, in-house seminars and week-long programmes that help professionals develop the essential skills required to make a difference and lead our organisations in today's commercial environment.