Are You a Pro at Giving AND Receiving Constructive Feedback? The Imperfections in Perfecting the Process with Successful Team Leader Jessica Jensen

Francis Ebong supports teams at X (formerly Google X), where he focuses on scaling early stage projects to solve some of the world’s hardest problems. Previously, he was Director of Global Operations & Partnerships at Facebook, where he oversaw consumer operations for Emerging Services, a global team responsible for the launch and engagement of new and emerging businesses (including FB Live, Marketplace, Messenger, ‘M’ Artificial Intelligence, & Workplace).

Before joining Facebook, Francis held key leadership roles in operations and business development at Apple and Postmates. Prior to Apple, Francis worked as a management consultant for both public and private sector clients at Deloitte, where he focused on go-to-market strategy & operations. Francis started his career living in Japan, East Africa, and Washington D.C. serving as a Naval Supply Officer.

In this episode, we discuss his leadership journey from the military to the tech industry, and the importance of “gentle candor” for leaders in their roles as truth-tellers.

Click to Read Transcript

Unknown Speaker 0:04
In this podcast, your host, Loree Draude, former Navy combat jet pilot with decades of experience leading teams in the Navy, and at Google, Facebook and Silicon Valley startups, and to stories about developing leaders and teams to reach peak performance. You’ll be inspired by World Class guests and learn strategies, tactics, the mindset and skill set needed. So you too, can develop supersonic leaders in teams. here’s your host, Loree Draude.

Loree 0:34
I’m so excited to welcome you to the podcast today. And you’re someone that I’ve wanted to interview for a while. So I’m really glad that fate brought us together through the other event that we attended. And I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. So I thought maybe we could start off by hearing a little bit more about what you’re doing at x. And you know, for people who don’t know what X is, it’s Google X, it used to be called Google X. Now it’s known as x the moonshot factory. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about what you do at x.

Francis Ebong 1:05
Absolutely, absolutely. Thank you for having me, I’m so thankful to have an opportunity to kind of reconnect with you, but also, you know, share stories that might be helpful for other folks, whether they be veterans, people from underrepresented backgrounds, or, you know, anyone looking to hear different perspectives and hear different stories. And, you know, of course, I guess my background is very different I, like you spent some time in the Navy. And I came from the Naval Academy, with the supply officer in the Navy for six years in Japan for a couple years and East Africa for a year in DC for the remaining time and, you know, spent some time management consulting, but been out to the Bay area for about the past nine years. And, you know, I’ve had rolls over at Apple, you know, kind of serving as a GM for hardware products, specifically, display technology, spent some time at Postmates, and Facebook leading consumer offer new products, and have been at x for about two years. And for a bit of context, x is kind of the incubator for new companies within alphabet. And, you know, really, the philosophy is to use technology to solve big systemic problems in the world. So it could be anything from, you know, trying to solve logistics, you know, there’s a company called wing, it could be, you know, using self driving cars to solve the big problem of transport. So there’s a self driving car company called Wei Mo. And the idea is, you have this organization that spends all of their times, you know, what we call trying to launch moonshots big, you know, ideas. And they can start out as very small ideas and small teams. And they go through this maturation process, where, ideally at the end, you we call graduate into becoming a standalone alphabet company, and you developed enough of a global scale technology, and you’re solving a big enough problem, that there’s a big enough business there, that you are at the scale and stage of something that is, you know, what looks like an alphabet sized bet. And that’s the idea. So I joined x, about two years ago came on, it’s kind of like VR, you know, an entrepreneur in residence and spent some time working across the portfolio, and fortunate enough to have, you know, started working with the team called mineral. And, you know, we just had a kind of a public unveiling last week, but, you know, mineral is a bet within alphabets, you know, ecosystem that is focused on, you know, solving agriculture, and really transforming the face of agriculture. Because, obviously, you know, climate change, and the way that food is produced in the food production ecosystem, is really not sustainable. So we’re really looking at ways to use what we call computational agriculture, that’s a fusion of both hardware and software to really transform the way that food is produced, transformed the way that resources are used. So land and water and, and then also transform the way that economics flow through the food production ecosystem. You can think of large CPG companies, governments, nonprofit organizations, farmers, hardware, software companies. So obviously, this is a huge, huge opportunity to have a significant impact on the world. There’s also a really large commercial opportunity. So that’s what we’ve been working on relatively early stage. But, you know, we’ve gotten some pretty good feedback not only from the market, but also internally. And we think that there’s, you know, a great opportunity for us to do something pretty significant.

Loree 4:44
That’s fantastic. I mean, everyone has to eat. So, you know, being able to ensure our food supply for many years is is incredibly huge. So, Wow, that’s really, really fascinating. You know, when I think of x, I think of you know, these amazing ideas that either leverage existing technical technology or create new technology. And so it’s it’s very much around the technology. And I’m curious about how x views leadership and team building as part of the, you know, the ingredients of these moon shots and furthering those technologies.

Francis Ebong 5:22
Yeah, you know, I would say that acts as a really unique culture. And, you know, one of the big foundations of that culture is an emphasis on giving people the space, freedom, and, you know, really permission if I could use that word, to take risk, be comfortable and taking risks. And I would say that that’s probably very different than the way that a lot of organizations are built, you know, a lot of organizations are built to kind of minimize risk, where, you know, we certainly are trying to push our teams to be comfortable taking risks, and be comfortable with that ambiguity, but also take smart risks. I think that’s probably one of the things that is unique about Exodus culture. And also it not only flows through our culture on a subjective basis, but also objectively the way that we engage with our teams, and how we kind of launch different products and work on the projects as a whole. It’s really based on allowing us to have that freedom in that space to kind of live abundantly really think about, you know, what’s possible. You know, one of the kind of anecdotes that teams all lean on is this concept of 10 x thinking, you know, it’s rather than trying to incrementally improve something by 10%, and try to improve things by 10 x. And in order to do that, you can’t take the same approaches that you would have taken, or that anyone else has taken, right, because a lot of the times when people are trying to improve upon something, or compete, you know, or be successful in a market, you know, a lot of people sometimes lean on old or conventional methods. And if you’re trying to do something that’s 10 times better than anything that’s ever done before, you absolutely can’t use what’s already existing, you have to kind of think of something new, something novel. And really, that’s what we all try to strive towards.

Loree 7:12
Awesome, I would love to hear a little bit more about your own leadership journey. You mentioned, the companies that you’ve you’ve worked with, and your own, you know, leadership training at the Naval Academy. I’m curious about even growing up, When was the first time that you realize that you could influence other people, and therefore, you know, be a leader? Is there anything that comes to mind from your childhood? You

Francis Ebong 7:35
know, I remember in the sandbox when I was two years ago,

Unknown Speaker 7:41
I would not be

Loree 7:41
surprised, Francis, I know you well enough, I would not be surprised to hear that.

Francis Ebong 7:48
You know, I’ll certainly say that. You know, my family, I am the youngest of four. And, you know, my entire family was involved in sports or other type of academic pursuits, whether it’s Academic Decathlon or otherwise, that was really focused on a lot of, you know, teamwork. And obviously, as you can imagine, with a relatively big family, there’s a lot of teamwork opportunities. Internally, I would say, a lot of the leadership skills and, you know, things that I saw were really related to sports. You know, Loree, as you know, I’m relatively tall fixed with Dragon, I played basketball growing up, played a lot of different sports and play basketball in college. And, you know, I think, through sports, there’s a lot of things that you are exposed to very similar to the military. Yeah, you know, through sports, you’re exposed to a bunch of different cultures that you may not have been exposed to otherwise, you’re forced to work within teams and figure out not only how to lead but also follow, you’re forced to deal with, you know, both success and failure, and, you know, equally gracefully. And I think that grit, and, you know, learning how to bounce back from failure, I think, is probably one of the biggest areas that I think was really nurtured, growing up through sports. And so I think that, you know, playing sports and being able to work within teams and understand how to, you know, manage conflict, and manage different personalities. All of those things are really instilled at young age, and, of course, going through different experiences at the Naval Academy, or even after you leave the Navy, or the Naval Academy, you know, you go into the fleet for your first several jobs, all of those things, you start to build on all these experiences. Now, I was very fortunate. Obviously, at the Naval Academy, there’s a lot of training that you get, whether it’s, you know, engineering training, or different types of training on tactics and strategy, but really, you go through four years of leadership training, and it’s obviously a very rigorous environment. You know, there’s a lot of especially as a 1718 19 year old, a lot of restrictions that, you know, at the time, you may not understand. But I think as you grow older, you really understand the method to the quote unquote, madness. And then, of course, as you graduate from the Naval Academy, you’re put into positions of leadership at a very young age, I think it really forces you to really take on a certain level of humility, that, you know, if you don’t have that self awareness, and if you are not humble, you won’t be successful. And I think humble servant leadership is such an important part of any military experience, especially if you are in a leadership position, that I think is absolutely invaluable, not only in the military, but that you take with you throughout your entire career. And I think that that’s been a huge influence on me, and certainly, what I strive to be in terms of a leader,

Loree 10:52
it’s interesting, you know, as a civilian leader, what do you feel have been the biggest, you know, leadership traits, besides this servant leadership? Is there anything else that you’ve brought over from the military, or any differences that you see between military leadership and what’s required in the military versus what’s required of you, as a leader in the corporate world?

Francis Ebong 11:14
You know, I think one of the things that makes a lot of veterans so appealing to private sector companies is because of the military experience, and military leadership experience, that you inherently have. And I think that there’s so much that translates from the military to the private sector. And probably one of the biggest things is, I would say, you know, in quotes, but just being human.

Unknown Speaker 11:39
Yeah, yeah,

Francis Ebong 11:39
you know, when you’re in the military, and, you know, you are the head of a division or department or, you know, you have people that are reporting to you, there is a very thin line, and probably no line in terms of this, you know, quote, unquote, work life balance, yeah, because a lot of times when you are at a station, or you’re on a deployment, you know, you live you work. And you play with all of these people that are on your team’s. So there is a heightened level of responsibility when, you know, you are in a, you know, remote location, or you are on a ship out in the middle of the water, or, you know, at a duty station, and you have a team of people reporting to you, who all come from different backgrounds, different ages and beliefs and other things. But in the end, you are responsible for the entirety of this group of people, and that includes their personal lives as well. And I think, whether you like it or not, there is a certain responsibility that you have, not only to the professional success of that team, but also to the personal support and care of those people. So inevitably, you have to know people on a very human level, I think, as that translates into the private sector, it’s extremely important to not only develop, obviously, professional relationships, but also have some type of human relationship where, you know, people know you as a person, and they also feel as though you know, them as a person as well, I think that, obviously, allows a lot of the messages and intent to be understood on a much deeper level, and allows leadership to, you know, really go both ways. So, you know, I think that’s probably one of the things that I’ve taken just from my military experiences and transition those over to the civilian sector.

Loree 13:30
I really love your point about humanity, because I feel that normally, not when we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but really, you know, there is that much stronger divide between work and home. And I almost feel like one of the silver linings of this pandemic has been that you literally get a peek inside other people’s homes. And, you know, we’re all desert spending all day on zoom calls. And you know, sometimes you see kids in the background or pets, and it’s, you know, I think it’s been a really good reminder that everyone’s got a whole life and work as part of it. But it is a really interesting peek into that. And a good reminder that, you know, we are all people with families or our, you know, lives that are outside of work. So that’s been kind of interesting to see. Do you feel like your definition of a good leader has changed over time?

Francis Ebong 14:21
You know, I think inevitably, it has to, as we all grow, and we gain different experiences, just like with anything, and I believe this is not only true personally, but also with businesses. As you start to get more information, it is okay, and probably even more expected, that your perspectives are challenged to shift. And I think that’s one of the things that whether it’s at x or otherwise, we really focus on being open to new ideas and being open to shifting your perspective. And I, you know, would say that, certainly with anyone’s career and just purely on even a professional basis. I would say earlier on, especially in the civilian sector, a lot of your work and a lot of your, you know, the way that you show up is related to your, you know, objective skill set. You know, what kind of financial models can be built? How nice are your presentations, and you know, how much information do you know, and I think that is a way, especially earlier on in your career, that you can demonstrate that you are a leader in your specific area, or function. And then I think as you start to progress in your career, you maybe get a little bit more seasoning and you get a bit more responsibility. Obviously, the knowledge base is absolutely important that the way to demonstrate leadership, but I think the leadership piece starts to morph more into, you know, how well do you build relationships that will be maintained relationships? How well do you motivate people? I think that there’s a transition that happens in everyone’s life, and especially their careers that is almost an 8020, you know, early on in your career, it’s 80%, skill set 20% relationships, and how do you motivate others? And how do you convince others of, you know, your viewpoint? How do you kind of influence that, of course, as you start to transition later in your career, it becomes even much more heavily skewed towards how well you’re able to influence, motivate, and communicate, and lead. And it becomes less about those hard skills that you spent all that time early on in your career developing. So, you know, I think that that’s probably shaped a lot of my perspective on leaders is, as you start to get later in your career, or later in life, you are probably much more attracted to people that are able to share a broader vision and build a relationship and motivate people versus people that, you know, have much deeper expertise in a specific industry. Great.

Loree 16:53
What would you say? is the best leadership advice you’ve been given?

Francis Ebong 16:57
That’s a good question. You know, I try to do as much as I can about reading different things, and whether they be business books or philosophy, or, you know, as much as I can about, you know, different strategies. I think all of these business books and philosophy, do they sometimes point back to, you know, a couple of different things. But I think, you know, one piece that I think is really important is just being obviously authentic. And, you know, this book, radical candor, you hear I always talk about graceful candor.

Unknown Speaker 17:41
Yep. So like, That’s what I think.

Francis Ebong 17:45
I think finding ways to be direct, and be a truth teller is so important. I think it is important not only for working with peers, or people that are reporting to you, but probably even more so important for the people that you report to as well. You know, as a leader, it is so easy to become an emperor with no clothes, where you have people that are around you that only tell you what you want to hear. And I mean this as a leader in not only our professional lives, but also our personal lives. And finding ways to not only be a truth teller yourself, but also surround yourself with other truth tellers, and people that are willing to be candid with you. It’s such an important thing. Not to be clear, you know, it’s not a one way street. You know, being candid, and not only being able to give people feedback in a way that is effective, useful, and graceful is not the only important thing. But it’s also being able to receive feedback in a way that is effective, and useful, and graceful. You know, as I’ve always talked about with people and teams that I work with, you are training people how to treat you, that people are giving you feedback, and you react in a way that, you know, either explicitly or implicitly tells them that you are not open to receiving that feedback, you will certainly not receive that feedback again, for better or for worse. Right. So again, this is a two way street. And I think that being direct and candid and, you know, giving and receiving feedback is one of the most important things as part of any organization, both at a macro level and a micro level. The only way that organizations and people can improve is to understand how we’re showing up in the world. So I think that that’s probably one of the best pieces of feedback that I’ve received is, you know, really focus on making sure that not only you are giving direct, open and useful feedback that you are also actively soliciting that feedback as well for yourself.

Loree 19:55
That’s fantastic. I think it’s hard sometimes for people to absorb feedback, especially earlier in their career, when they might not have the confidence to realize that it’s for their own growth. It’s not something to be taken personally. So, you know, that the whole practice of being able to not just give but receive feedback is, I think, a continuous growth opportunity for people. You know, no one likes to be told they’re not perfect. So.

Francis Ebong 20:21
But absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. You know, again, you know, our mission has been clear, you can kind of find this at x company slash mineral. And you can see kind of the work that we’re doing and, you know, we’re always open to new ways that we can have impact. So anything that folks find valuable, you know, always get in contact with us.

Loree 20:41
Excellent. I wanted to ask you, did you ever read the science fiction book wool, w o, l?

Francis Ebong 20:49
I have not I have not. What’s it about? Well, you know, what

Loree 20:53
you’re talking about a brought this up for me, because I read it a few years ago, it’s about this futuristic society where they basically built cities underground, in these multi layer, you know, almost like how they’ve transitioned old Airforce missile silos into apartment complexes, but just you know, 15 storeys underground, it’s similar to that. And they talk in the book about our the author, he writes about how they’ve built, you know, like, certain levels are all food, and, you know, they’re growing plants. And I think, you know, anyone who’s seen the Martian, I know, probably relates that type of food growth effort to it, because it’s the same issue in this book, you know, they don’t have these wide areas of land to plant food anymore. And instead, they’re doing it in multiple layers underground. So I thought it was really fascinating, just, you know, so creative, and it’s such a huge problem that you’re solving there at x to be able to sustain agriculture, over time over maybe not using as much land I’m not really sure how minerals working, but just how to incorporate new technologies to improve the way that we’re doing things that we might take for granted sometimes, you know, definitely, as a consumer, I take that for granted where my food is coming from and all the effort that goes into receiving it. So yeah, anyway, it’s a good book I thought it was there’s actually a trilogy, I think it’s a whole series.

Francis Ebong 22:15
That sounds like an amazing book, and I will certainly take a look at it. So who else? I’ll take a read.

Loree 22:22
Fantastic. I think the author’s first name is Hugh, and I can’t remember his last name. I’m sure it’s on Amazon. So Francis, thank you so much for taking time to come to the podcast today. And talk with us about your own leadership journey and the work that you’re doing at x. I really appreciate it.

Francis Ebong 22:37
Thank you so much for having me on the show. I think this is such a great thing that you’re doing. And I can’t wait to see some of the future episodes. I’m going to go back and listen to all the previous ones. But I’m so happy that you thought of me as someone to share some stories and perspectives. So thank you.

Unknown Speaker 22:58
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