Saving Face(book): When do you hire a pro CEO?

zuckerberg500big.jpgWhen is the time right for a founder to give up the CEO post? It’s a question you will likely have to ask yourself — if your company is at all successful.

I’ve had this founders’ dilemma on the brain ever since I read last week’s Wall Street Journal feature on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO Seeks Help as Site Grows Up, following his company’s announcement, Mar. 4, that it had hired Googler Sheryl Sandberg as COO.

Facebook ‘s board obviously senses that the company needs more adult supervision, but the piece makes clear that Zuckerberg has no intention of giving up the top job yet. So I read with keenest interest this graph the WSJ piece:

Mr. Zuckerberg’s experience is emblematic of Silicon Valley’s accelerated culture, where startups change more in a few years than most companies do in decades — forcing CEO-founders to adapt quickly in order to survive in their roles. The founders of Google, Yahoo Inc. and eBay Inc. all handed the reins to outsider CEOs within three years of founding their companies.

Is Zuckerberg adapting enough? I’m not so sure. Then yesterday I read GigaOM colleague Stacey Higginbotham’s column, Zuckerberg Isn’t About the Money, published from SXSW… where Zuckerberg was interviewed by Business Week’s Sarah Lacy.

Stacey wasn’t impressed. She writes that Zuckerberg’s oration, focused on the grand “Facebook vision” rather than more practical business topics such as features-development or monetization

…[demonstrated] the kind of starry-eyed idealism that is either patently untrue or shows how much Zuckerberg still needs to learn about running a company. I’m all for staying focused on your business rather than chasing every dollar, but at the end of the day a company whose CEO is focused on communicating a message rather than figuring out how to turn a profit is delusional. Sure, sometimes the Field-of-Dreams approach works, but sometimes it just ends up like Kozmo or Webvan.

I think Stacey is right, and I’m wondering:

* Is Zuckerberg wise to think he can be one of those very rare founder-CEOs, like Bill Gates, who can run his company from the corner office for its first 25 years? Stats show that most founders cannot do this — no matter how stellar their panel of advisors is — and unlike Zuckerberg, Gates had some very highly-qualified, and older equal partners at the helm of Microsoft from the start. Even if Paul Allen didn’t stay, his influence was important early on.

* How much time does 23-yr-old Zuckerberg really have to “learn” about how to be a CEO? (At the foot of investors like Roger McNamee!)

and…

* Would it have been wiser to give Sandberg the top job now?

Tell us what you think.

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