When Customers are the Product – Leadership Lessons from Facebook’s Data Privacy Scandal. #DeleteFacebook

When Customers are the Product – Leadership Lessons from Facebook’s Data Privacy Scandal. #DeleteFacebook

So last week Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about why and how Facebook failed to protect millions of users’ data. Zuckerberg is feeling the heat from investors, users, and now members of Congress on Facebook’s data privacy practices.

The hearings were a result of the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign, mined and used data of an estimated 87 million Facebook users to psychologically profile voters.


It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Facebook was collecting data on you – specifically tracking what you post about, what you like, and what you share. Your habits and your data –  are in fact – what Facebook sells to advertisers on a daily basis. They are a for-profit business after all.

However, what is a surprise to many is the way in which the Cambridge Analytica scandal unfolded. Are you going to tell me Facebook had no idea what was going on? The company who has facial recognition within its app – a feature that can predict who is with you in a photo you share – didn’t have security measures in place to protect users’ data from being harvested? Or better yet, didn’t have security measures in place to detect such an act? Or, knew about it and decided it wasn’t worth telling consumers?

This type of thing happens when customers become the product. Companies get greedy. They want more growth, and often they will try and achieve it at a negative cost to the customer; those who use their product and keep them in business. Especially when they know most customers won’t quit using their products or services.

Every news story like this is can also be a learning lesson for leaders in the business world. Companies are forced to adapt and change to stay relevant in a world where the average Tweet has a shelf life of 1 second. Now that Facebook has been caught, they are going to have to make some changes. However, there are some things to consider to adapt to rapid change and not further piss off your shareholders and customers.

Here are 10 tips to take away from Facebook’s data gaffe, and help you handle rapid change, to prevent negative impacts to your business: 

Change is hard

You must understand and acknowledge change is hard. Don’t go on a media tour, or testify before Congress, and talk about it like it’s something so easy to accomplish that things will be better tomorrow. Anyone who tells themselves change is easy has never lived through it or is choosing to pull the wool over their eyes. Change deals with transitioning individuals, teams, and organizations from a current state to a desired future state – the unknown. The unknown makes most people a bit anxious. This is normal – though not an easy process for people to go through. It’s important to go into a change effort with realistic expectations for both your business and your customers – change will be hard for people both professionally and personally.

People will need ongoing support

Leadership needs to communicate the change and the ways in which they will support those impacted – both internal and external stakeholders. If you expect people to help support the change and to commit to the new ways of doing things or interacting with your product, you need to explain the “why” and the “how.” Not just, “we got caught so to save our butt we are doing this.” Providing ongoing support is hard. Internal stakeholders need to understand how they will be impacted and what contributions they are making toward creating a better future – and why. Customers need to understand how the changes will impact their user experience for the better. You need to dispel fears and the rumor mill. Stakeholders need to know leadership is making changes with their best interests in mind and that they will have support in the process of adapting and acclimating to new ways of doing things.

The best laid plans

Of course, a strong change management plan is needed – but a plan is just shelf ware without any action. ACTION is imperative. Even if you have great plans, they alone are not enough. For Mark Zuckerberg and his leadership team to make any positive changes Facebook must account for governance, communications, training, and ongoing support for both employees and customers. The plan needs to be realistic, actionable, and customizable. The plan also needs to be implemented by those skilled in change management in collaboration with trusted stakeholders. More importantly – the plan the leaders and stakeholders act on must remain agile and flexible. Customers and stakeholders should have a way of providing feedback. Course correction is often needed – remaining flexible during change is a key to success.

Leader does not equal change agent

Just because you’re in a leadership role – like Mark Zuckerberg – doesn’t make you a good change agent. Yes, leadership needs to be involved – trusted leadership, leadership with the desire and time to commit to success, leadership open to learning additional skills, leadership who can check ego, and leadership who can show compassion and patience. Leadership with the best “people” skills. Title and position alone shouldn’t guarantee a seat at the change management table or make a person the voice to the masses (or the press.) Especially if employees and customers have lost trust in a leader as is the case for many with Facebook.

Resistance will happen

Many people will resist change. People are inherently change adverse. Even those of us who don’t fear change, or are paid to lead it, don’t always like change. Resistance is natural. If you really want your change to be a success, then you must find a way to engage the resisters and harness their energy in a positive way. You can’t expect resistance not to happen, like in the case of the #DeleteFacebook campaign, and you can’t ignore it when it does. The concerns of these people, or small groups, must be acknowledged and addressed.

Don’t be afraid of the muck

Change is dirty, it’s messy, and the road can be bumpy. Embrace the muck. Prepare for time in the Neutral Zone. Roll up your sleeves. And be transparent with your employees and customers about this process and why you are making changes. You’ll hit roadblocks, you’ll hit hurdles…ram through them and jump over them. Perseverance and persistence are imperative to success.

Change takes time

Some change can happen faster than others – but almost no change can be immediate.  However, change overall, particularly deep culture change or transformational change, can’t happen overnight. Regardless of the catalyst – merger and acquisition, technology etc. Just because you say change is happening doesn’t mean everyone is on board. You need to set realistic expectations regarding the timing of completion and realistic expectations regarding milestones and measurements of success. And, you need to communicate to employees and customers and provide them opportunities to offer feedback. And whatever you do – course correct if needed but don’t give up midway through the process or your setting yourself up for the next big scandal!

You are what you do

Leaders and change agents must embody the values and changes they want stakeholder groups to adopt. Being a leader doesn’t exempt you from having to deal with the change yourself – personally and professionally. Per Facebook, for example, this is why many felt that Facebook should have been transparent about their specific uses of customer data – and not in tiny print at the bottom of a long user agreement most of us don’t even read or know exists – and not just waited until they got caught in a data breach. The attitude of, opps now we’re in trouble so let’s address this – is poor leadership. When it comes to successful change it’s necessary that leadership serves as role models. Hypocrisy doesn’t sell! Mean what you say and do what you mean. They are watching. So be a role model, be transparent, embrace change, exemplify the best of what the change is all about, lead by example.

Customers need to know

If you fail to communicate the impacts of the change to stakeholders and customers they’re likely to think you’re hiding something. That means you lose support and trust. I’m not saying your customers need to know all the backend details, but the truth is, they do need to know the changes you’re making  – and how those changes will impact them and their user experience. If you think you are changing to better serve them then why shouldn’t they be informed? They should – or at least their opinions and concerns – be heard and addressed. Be transparent and responsive. Involving stakeholders and customers and communicating with them throughout the change process only serves to increase buy-in and engagement for change.

If at first you don’t succeed

Most people don’t like to hear this – but it’s the truth –change may not stick the first time. Yes, I know, you spent all that time and effort and money – hopefully, because you wanted to and not because you had to since you got caught doing something not so good. But don’t be afraid to adapt or tweak your process, your framework, or the players involved. Every organization is different, every culture is different, no two customers are the same, and change management approaches should be flexible and adapted to best suit the organization and type of change. If things don’t go as planned – discuss and analyze- take a hard look at what went wrong and how. Don’t force the same process again and expect a different result. Don’t toss things aside and just move on. Develop lessons learned and saddle up and keep on riding the change journey.

Facebook will…be Facebook. Some users will delete their accounts. Some will still use Facebook but keep the pressure on and the bad press going. Some users won’t care about the data privacy issues. Some will be concerned but keep using the platform as they have always done. However, as Facebook is now a publicly traded company, shareholders don’t like the bad press or reduced value, and that will also provide some urgency for change. Changes will happen. Hopefully at least some of the changes are lead and managed in a way that keeps the customer in mind and enhances the user experience.

About Scott Span, MSOD: is CEO & Lead Consultant of Tolero Solutions – a Leadership Effectiveness & Change Management firm.  He helps clients in achieving success through people, creating organizations where people enjoy working and customers enjoy doing business.

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