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Zuck was poorly served by his 'adults'

May 23, 2012: 1:59 PM ET

Were Facebook's "adults" the problem?

FORTUNE -- Mark Zuckerberg never wanted to take Facebook (FB) public. He didn't want to kiss hedge fund rings or answer to thousands of shareholders or disclose earnings.

And, on Wall Street, the feeling was mutual. Institutional investors also didn't want Zuckerberg to take Facebook public unless he added some big-name "adult" supervision. After all, what does a 20-something know about running a multi-billion dollar public corporation? Just imagine the costly mistakes he would make.

But Zuckerberg didn't really have much of a choice. Due to the company's employee compensation strategy, and its early embrace of private secondary market trading, he knew that going public was inevitable. So he did what he was told, and hired a bunch of "adults."

First it hired Sheryl Sandberg to be chief operating officer. Then, several months later, Ted Ullyot joined as general counsel. Finally, David Ebersman was brought aboard in 2009 as chief financial officer, following an exhaustive search for a CFO "with public company experience."

Then Zuckerberg went back to his desk to code, strategize and somehow make his dormroom project even more globally ubiquitous. His "adults" would take care of the boring legwork, and he'd learn some things by watching them.

From an AP story just days before Facebook's recent IPO:

Zuckerberg, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif. with his girlfriend and a white Hungarian Puli dog named Beast, has matured as a leader with the help of experienced mentors. One of his closest advisors is Sheryl Sandberg, who he hired away from Google in 2008. Zuckerberg, known for sometimes-awkward public appearances, realized that the razor-sharp, people-savvy advertising executive complements his own shortcomings. Sandberg is Zuckerberg's No. 2, the chief operating officer who oversees advertising and often serves as Facebook's smiling, public face. Then there's Donald Graham, the 66-year-old CEO and chairman of The Washington Post Co., who serves as a mentor to Zuckerberg and holds a seat on Facebook's board of directors.

Rebecca Lieb, analyst at the Altimeter Group, says Zuckerberg has assembled a team of "truly exceptional lieutenants." David Ebersman, Facebook's chief financial officer, who hails from biotech firm Genentech, is another example. Zuckerberg hired him in 2009, saying that Ebersman's previous job, helping to scale the finance organization of the fast-growing biotech company "will be important to Facebook."

Today, however, it seems that those mentors might have led the kid, and his company, astray.

First there's Sandberg, who apparently recused herself from the underwriter selection process, apparently because she had existing relationships with certain bankers from her time with Google (GOOG). Pardon me, but wouldn't such relationships actually have been important? Not to get bankers to take on Facebook as a client -- everyone wanted them -- but because she might have a better sense of who would, and wouldn't, be the best fit? And, once Facebook did pick her pal Michael Grimes over at Morgan Stanley (MS), wouldn't it have been good to have a third opinion in the room -- particularly one so close to both key players?

Then there is Ebersman, who oversees a financial operation that allegedly warned underwriter analysts -- but not others -- to cut Q2 guidance estimates. If true, what he did may actually have violated securities regulations -- and also means he shouldn't be too quick to count his unvested shares.

To be sure, the buck ultimately stops with Zuckerberg, because he is Facebook's CEO. But today he's got to be wondering if he was too trusting. Not only of those he put in charge, but of those who told him he needed adult supervision in the first place.

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Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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