Recently, I joined the Arthur Page Society Future Leader’s Experience for a workshop on “Business Acumen,” which took place in the backyard of our SF office and in the heart of Silicon Valley. We spent some time at Facebook, where we had a Q&A with Sheryl Sandburg and chief communication officer (CCO) Mike Buckley, and at Stanford, where we met with a number of other CCOs and got a peek at how communications is taught to students in the rarified airs of the school’s MBA program.

It was fun to geek out at both institutions – and I came away with some inspiration as well as reaffirmation around the way we lead within W2O Group. My top five takeaways:

1. We are first and foremost communications professionals…

…not “healthcare” or “technology” (or fill in your choice of industry) communications professionals. We should appreciate the discipline we’re in as industry agnostic and not be afraid to build our career from there. I was struck by how many times the CCOs we spoke to (from Levi Strauss, Chevron, etc.) have changed industries while moving up the ranks; proof positive that our skills can be applied across industries. As one CCO pointed out: you always have that first 100 days to learn as much as possible and ask as many questions as you can.

2. In order to lead, you must fully embrace and personalize the company’s mission

Leaders truly believe in what their company is trying to accomplish. At Facebook the belief is “the world is a better place open and connected,” and staff are encouraged to build their own communities. Our tour guide has started her own non-profit; other employees initiate all kinds of charity and community campaigns on their own. Staff also police themselves and have created an internal listserv called “FaceWorld Problems,” where employees will call out others within the company if they are seen doing something countercultural. (I’m guessing this is defined by what hyper-ambitious, intelligent developers with a hacker mentality deem as “uncool.”)

On-site printing facility enables Facebookers to create  signage and promote their own messages wherever they like

Particularly striking is how all Facebook employees introduce themselves – by either showing their audience their own Facebook page (if presenting) or by providing a fairly intimate bio on who they are (and what makes them unique), what brought them to Facebook and what they’re passionate about. And this takes us to #3:

3. It’s important to build and “own” your personal brand as a leader

Sheryl Sandburg and Mark Zuckerberg each actively engage with core policy issues that impact their business and with core policy issues that they personally care about that impact the community at large. For Sandburg its female peer leadership mentoring and empowerment; for Zuckerberg its immigration reform.

Zuckerberg also does a weekly stand-up ever Friday for the entire company to inform employees and openly discuss challenges. He has been known to stop the proceedings and ask for tougher questions. That reminds me of someone else

4. Celebrate failure

This idea of making it okay to admit weakness – starting at the top – is interesting. It stands in stark contrast to a culture of “group think” where individuals are challenged to prove there is a problem before senior leaders will respond. At Stanford, we went over the multiple NASA disasters and probed how the internal culture contributed to failures that resulted in loss of lives. It was clear that NASA historically has not conducted meaningful inquiries to learn from mistakes, shocking for a science and evidence-based organization, nor had it implemented any sort of individual accountability.

The Apollo 13 Mission, which astoundingly was survived by all of the astronauts on board, was deemed a failure by NASA because it didn’t succeed in a moon landing. When the movie was made, it rewrote history for a lot of the staff at NASA, who finally recognized perhaps there was something worth celebrating…and learning from.

The question I left with was, how do we ensure institutional learning so we don’t continue to make the same mistakes? What are the cultural changes necessary?

5. “Keep your head down, and keep shipping.”

Like most companies, Facebook bases its decisions on four things: financial implications, legal risk, product impact, and its Board; and now data governs it all. The communications team is using predictive analytics to calibrate response to user feedback on new product features: for Facebook, media has become a predictive tool for user trust. Facebook conducts 10,000 user surveys every day and can now directly correlate negative coverage to user sentiment and the impact it will have over the short and long term.

Generally – they’ve found that short term dips in user trust do not warrant a reaction (a.k.a. panic) and have developed a motto heard around the campus, “keep your head down and keep shipping.” (They’re referring to code.) Buckley predicted to us that future communications departments will allocate 30% of their resources to analytics.

And that’s where things got a bit awkward when I started doing the W2O cheer…