Yuri Milner’s Russian Clapback

As the war in Ukraine continues, the widening, noisy and at times confusing battle between Facebook’s parent, Meta, and Vladimir Putin’s government has generated its fair share of headlines. So a critique from one of Facebook’s earliest — and perhaps most important — investors may have slipped your notice. But it is a critical development.

That investor would be Yuri Milner, the most high-profile Russian-born investor in Silicon Valley, who after a few weeks of silence this week denounced the invasion of Ukraine in no uncertain terms. Given his background, that was a bold move, to say the least.

But before I get to his comments, a little more about Milner. He burst onto the scene in 2009 when his firm ponied up around $200 million for a stake in Facebook that was critical to its nascent global ambitions. Both Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, talked up Milner and his Digital Sky Technologies Global investment vehicle to me when they appeared at my All Things Digital conference. I made a point of getting to know more about him and his partners.

An investment in Twitter and other top companies followed and the affable Milner quickly became integral to the tech scene, including reportedly paying $100 million for a lavish Los Altos Hills, Calif. house called the Loire Chateau, and throwing what I am told were epic parties there. I never got an invite, but other Milner parties I’ve attended — like those for the Breakthrough Prize, which focused on giving a pile of money to top science and medical geeks — were certainly opulent. For that, he joined with big names like Zuckerberg and Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, alongside celebrities like Zoe Saldana, Lenny Kravitz and James Corden, to dole out the dough to how-did-I-get-here recipients inside a dolled-up tent at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Always over the top, especially for the tech biz, the parties were also charmingly awkward.

Still, from the start, the reputation of Milner’s firm was tainted because a big slug of its financing came from the metal and telecommunications oligarch Alisher Usmanov (recently slapped with sanctions by Britain), who was close to Putin. Milner later further diversified his sources of capital, but someone always seemed to make a “Putin’s money” barb at any luxe gathering he threw.

A Times investigation in 2017 detailed how a series of shell companies backing Milner’s company, now known as DST Global, were linked to Russian sources. Milner complained that the article relied on “guilt by association” and noted that “investments can be made on business merits only — even by a Russian.”

He stopped taking in investments linked to Russia more than a decade ago. He is an Israeli citizen and has grown more reserved, focusing on his holdings in a variety of space companies, because, he once told me jokingly, he’d wanted to be a top physicist, but wasn’t smart enough. He seemed plenty smart whenever I spoke with him and he surely knew he had to say something after Putin’s attack on a sovereign nation and neighbor.

So, back to his recent comments. After Russia’s invasion began, Milner was curiously silent, though his Breakthrough organization released a milquetoast statement and gave a multimillion donation to Ukrainian humanitarian efforts. Then this week, the group came out more forcefully.

“The Breakthrough Prize Foundation strongly condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its unprovoked and brutal assaults against the civilian population,” it said in a statement, adding that it endorsed Breakthrough Prize winners’ “stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in support of their unqualified right to peace, security and self-determination.” The statement was credited to Breakthrough’s chairman, S. Pete Worden, but obviously Milner had a hand in crafting it.

His investment firm took a similarly firm stance, alongside making a big donation to a GoFundMe campaign organized by the actor Mila Kunis, a Ukrainian American, and her husband Ashton Kutcher.

“DST Global condemns Russia’s war against Ukraine, its sovereign neighbor,” the firm said. “Like so many people and institutions around the world, DST Global is deeply concerned about the terrible humanitarian disaster and the desperate plight of fleeing refugees.”

That was clearly the right move for Milner, whom I tried to reach for further comment. He’s typically willing to talk about a range of issues, even those that are difficult — unlike so many others in tech — but this time I got no reply. If you want to get a gander of him in action, here he is at the Code conference talking about tiny robots he wanted to launch into space to find alien life.

Frankly, given the precarious state of our world, otherworldly contact could not come soon enough.

4 Questions

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist who teaches at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author, most recently, of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.” I’ve edited his answers.

Many companies are finally pulling white-collar employees back into the physical workplace, after two years of largely working from home. What’s the most important organizational thing companies need to do — beyond giving out free doughnuts?

People aren’t resisting coming back to the office, as much as they’re resisting giving up their freedom. If you’re going to take away one form of flexibility, why not offer another? More than choices about where to work, it turns out that people want control over when and how much they work.

If you want to encourage people to show up, it might be worth experimenting with a four-day workweek. The five-day week wasn’t ordained for all time from above. It’s an arbitrary human invention that emerged a century ago after even Henry Ford — not exactly known for enlightened management philosophies — figured out that shortening the workweek can increase effort. People can be every bit as productive in four focused days as five unfocused days, and recent tests cases, from the Icelandic government to Microsoft in Japan to the Brazilian manufacturing company Semco, suggest that they may be even more productive working less.

If you’re worried that people might shirk or slack, there’s an easy workaround: Make the four-day week a reward for performance. That’s what Perpetual Guardian, an insurance company in New Zealand, has done. As long as you maintain your productivity, you get to stay with four days. I’m willing to bet that many people will be happy to commute to work four days in exchange for an extra day of freedom.

Of course, shortening the workweek may not be a panacea. New organizational policies are like new medicines: They generally have side effects and unintended consequences. But many of your time-honored best practices were created for a world that no longer exists. If you never rethink the way you’ve always done things, you can’t evolve as the world evolves. If you don’t run experiments, you aren’t building a learning organization.

After all this time away from the office, many people are used to the time saved from not commuting and being able to better schedule their days. While it seems that the never-ending Zooms might be over, what parts of that should remain? And what parts need to go?

We’re still going to have plenty of virtual meetings, but it’s time to stop requiring people to have their cameras on all the time. If we know each other, I don’t always need to see your face. Research has shown that turning cameras off reduces fatigue (especially for women and newcomers), and only hearing people’s voices can also help us avoid being distracted by misleading facial expressions and body language, leaking unwanted emotions, and having conversations that are dominated by one person.

But don’t lose the chat window. It’s become my favorite way of fighting groupthink.

We have extensive evidence that if you bring a group of people together to brainstorm, they generate fewer ideas — and less original ideas — than those same individuals working alone. Group brainstorming stifles diversity of thought through production blocking (we can’t all talk at once), ego threat (I don’t want to look stupid), and conformity pressure (I want to jump on the bandwagon), and those problems are amplified for people who lack power and status. If you’re the most junior person in the room, the only woman of color in a team of white men, or the introvert in a group of extraverts, it’s that much harder to overcome those pressures.

An effective solution is called brainwriting. You give people the problem before the meeting or at the start of the meeting, and then let them jot down their own ideas. You get more variety and more quality, and then you can let the wisdom of crowds evaluate and refine. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve run in the past two years where I’ve asked people to type in the chat, and we end up with a much richer set of possibilities than we would’ve seen otherwise.

As hard as it has been to be isolated, some people depended on being at home for child care and other domestic matters. What should companies do to help them transition back to office life? And will this mean better policies around adding more access to such services?

Raising pay and covering child care should be a no-brainer at this point. Also, even during the pandemic, women have continued to do the vast majority of domestic chores. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’re starting to see companies take steps to lighten the load.

In an upcoming episode of my “WorkLife” podcast, we feature a company with a “C.E.O. for the day” initiative. At the end of each month, one employee gets to use company resources to make a decision that will benefit everyone. My favorite policy to come out of that initiative is that the company now pays for a home cleaning service for every employee.

People talk about a hybrid workplace — mixing virtual and more “intentional” in-person gatherings rather than having a full-time physical workplace or a full-time virtual one. But others think it will depend on the employee and their performance, so it is a good idea to stack rank your workers?

The evidence is that ranking employees from best to worst is generally a bad idea for three reasons:

One, it discourages low performers without motivating high performers. Take an experiment with salespeople: seeing where they ranked decreased the revenue of lower performers but didn’t boost the performance of higher performers.

Two, it pits co-workers against each other, fueling a culture of takers rather than givers. If the best way for me to get ahead is to take my colleagues down, you’re rewarding cutthroat competition instead of collaboration — which is especially disastrous if you’re trying to build great teams.

Three, it promotes perceptions of unfairness. After all, what ultimately matters is not relative performance but absolute performance. Much like forced grading curves in schools, stack rankings end up making distinctions without meaningful differences. If the whole team is falling short of expectations, why would you single out a few as high performers? And if everyone is excelling, you shouldn’t have to designate a handful of them as poor performers.

The one place where I’m a fan of forced rankings is up the hierarchy. A while back, I studied an investment bank that was struggling to get junior analysts to be honest about toxic managers. When we asked analysts to rank senior people from best to worst, it immediately became clear who the abusive supervisors are. I saw a law firm take this even further: They invited the highest-performing associates to pick their partners and cases. That meant the partners with the worst reputations attracted the worst talent, and it was an incentive for them to stop hazing people.

Lovely & Loathsome

This week, both awards go to Mark Zuckerberg.

As hard as he may try, it’s doubtful he can reach escape velocity from the business that brung him, which is social media. Not that that’s stopped the famed billionaire entrepreneur from trying.

In an interview this week’s at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, — back for its first in-person festival with a new owner — Zuckerberg also deigned to show up (virtually) attempting to reset expectations around his tech aims post-Covid.

Emerging from the global disaster has left Meta’s stock in a swoon, due largely to new consumer-friendly ad tracking rules from Apple that smacked at its main revenue stream (as well as the huge hangover from the company’s full-body hug of Donald Trump). While most have given Meta good grades on its handling of the incredibly complex situation in Ukraine, it still hasn’t been enough to satisfy investors. Its stock has stayed in the doldrums, plunging from its high of $384 a share in September to $186 in mid-March before recently rebounding a bit to over $200.

Still, Zuckerberg is doubling down on his breathtaking investments in the metaverse, spooking Wall Street, even as the company has pared some perks for its babied employees, like free dry-cleaning. What of it, as long as he can be softly interviewed in a SXSW talk that was titled “Into the Metaverse: Creators, Commerce and Connection”?

Not a word about the other troubles was uttered — presumably that was why Nick Clegg was installed as president of global affairs (or, as I like to call him, head janitor). Instead the talk was a lot about what’s next.

Before the rebranding of Facebook to Meta, people saw the metaverse “as a very secondary part of what we did, compared to all the social media stuff,” Zuckerberg said. “And I think in some ways, it’s the job of the leader to say, ‘Hey, no, we need to keep on moving forward with our full energy.’”

In other words, we don’t talk about the social network, nyet, nyet, nyet.

Instead, it appears as if he is going to wear out our ears with this metaverse talk, painting Meta as the leader, even though the race has hardly begun. And yet, Zuckerberg was all in: “The future tends to come sooner than you think, when you bet on it.”

Yeah, well, sometimes those are losing bets. See: Facebook’s Home phone, its Diem cryptocurrency effort and its dating service.

Zuckerberg also went with the “if the great leader wills it” theory, which everyone has tried to pull off after the death of Steve Jobs. “One lesson that I feel like I’ve learned a lot is that just believing in things and having a very strong conviction is one of your most powerful tools as an entrepreneur,” he said. “The future belongs to the people who believe in it more than others.”

Well, I knew Steve Jobs; and, Mark, you’re no Steve Jobs.

That said, I do admire the chutzpah on display and kudos for trying to make “fetch” happen by saying it a lot. And I suspect Zuckerberg will be saying it a lot over the next years. Like the old saying goes: If only wishing made it so.

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