It wasn’t long before Sheryl Sandberg joined Facebook in 2008 for critics to say that it didn’t provide enough “adult supervision” when the company faced its first major privacy scandal.
In recent years, many have been quick to criticize Sandberg — long considered the No. 2 person at Facebook, now known as Meta — for the company’s many mistakes. Those include everything from allowing Russian bots to spread propaganda ahead of the 2016 US presidential election to their role in the January 6 uprising. But she also helped the company grow from a dormitory experiment to one of the largest, most influential technology companies in the world.
After a 14-year run, Sandberg announced on June 1 that she would step down from her role as COO of Meta. She will retain her seat on the company’s board.
For those who pay close attention: Sandberg’s departure has been a long time coming. Her influence at the company was: reportedly declining and sometimes she had to apologize publicly for problems that ultimately only her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, had the ultimate authority to solve. One might even wonder why she hadn’t resigned sooner, especially since Meta recently promoted former British politician Nick Clegg to president of global affairs, meaning he took on the policy responsibilities previously under Sandberg’s umbrella.
“It’s a decision I didn’t take lightly, but it’s been 14 years,” Sandberg said Bloomberg on Wednesdaywho also joked that her position was “not the most manageable job anyone has ever had.”
Sandberg had arguably one of the toughest gigs in the tech industry, overseeing Facebook’s entire business – its advertising activities and partnerships with other companies, along with content moderation, recruiting, and public relations. Her long to-do list at the company allowed Zuckerberg to focus on what he enjoyed most: building products.
“Sheryl designed our advertising company, hired great people, forged our management culture and taught me how to run a business,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a public Facebook post on Wednesday discussing Sandberg’s departure. “She deserves credit for so much of what Meta is today.”
Sandberg leaves Meta with a mixed legacy: On the one hand, she helped Facebook grow into one of the most profitable companies in the world, leveraging her expertise as a former Google ad manager to help Facebook figure out how to make money — and a lot. sandberg applied Google’s organizational model the sales organization in teams focused on attracting large, medium and small advertisers (when she joined, only advertising partner was Microsoft† One year into her tenure, Facebook became a profitable company for the first timeand she continued to develop Facebook ads that targeted users based on their social activity.
As one of the few top female technology executives in the entire industry, Sandberg has also been a role model for many women inside and outside the company. In 2013 she published Lean in, a book that encourages women to stand up for themselves at work and in their family lives, which inspired a social movement of tens of thousands of ‘Lean In’ circles of women who gathered to implement the ideas in Sandberg’s book. Sandberg’s brand of corporate feminism too attracted some critics saw it as putting too much pressure on individual women to advance in their personal careers without paying so much attention in the first place to addressing the structural problems that create sexism. Still, the immediate reception of Sandberg’s book was mostly positive: her book sold more than 4 million copies and was a New York Times bestseller for more than a year.
Over the years, however, Facebook grew into an increasingly political platform, and Sandberg began to face public criticism for its role in managing corporate policy. First, there was the controversy surrounding Russia spreading misinformation on Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election — a problem Zuckerberg had delegated to Sandberg to solve — and shortly after came the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal. Zuckerberg reportedly blamed Sandberg and her team for the fallout, calling the response of the media “hysteria” ” according to the Wall Street Journal, and hired Clegg around that time. Sandberg also publicly defended and apologized for Facebook’s role as a platform that used to be… facilitate genocide in Myanmar and in promote political extremism in the U.S.
Sometimes Sandberg responded to negative press about Facebook with: aggressive lobbying tactics† Under her leadership, Facebook hired Republican opposition research firm Definers in 2017 to investigate the company’s critics, including left-wing billionaire George Soros and the civil rights organization Color of Change (later apologized to the group for doing this†
sandberg went on sabbatical this spring and during that time, she was again at the center of controversy when she was accused of using her influence to pressure the Daily Mail to stop reporting on her then-boyfriend, former Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick , according to reports by the Wall Street Journal† A Meta spokesperson told Recode the allegations in the Journal article were “absolutely no” reason for Sandberg’s departure, and that Meta has been investigating the matter internally, which is now “closed”.
Given all the cumulative scandals Sandberg has faced when he was the second man at Facebook, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to industry insiders that Sandberg is finally leaving Meta. For several years now it seems as if her influence decreased within the company and in particular with Zuckerberg, with whom she was previously known to have a close bond. (Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg claim to stay very close, and Meta has publicly denied any break in their relationship.)
“In the beginning, Sheryl was one of the few COOs in the world where if someone said, ‘We’re sending her instead of Mark,’ people just agreed,” said Katie Harbath, former director of public policy at Meta. who worked with Sandberg. “It was almost like having co-CEOs.”
As cracks began to appear in Sandberg’s relationship with Zuckerberg during the Trump administration, the CEO reportedly became more involved in policy decisions. For example, he decided that Facebook was a more hands-off approach to moderating political speeches, a move that angered some of Sandberg’s allies in the Democratic Party. Zuckerberg reportedly dismissed Sandberg in 2019 by deciding not to remove a manipulated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, making it look like she was slurping her words, according to the New York Times†
In Harbath’s words, “Mark and Sheryl’s views on how different issues should be addressed started to diverge more then”.
With Sandberg leaving, some industry insiders worry that without her, there won’t be anyone to disagree with Zuckerberg on crucial decisions.
“Sheryl has been through quite a bit in those 14 years, from some really high highs to some incredible lows,” said a former Facebook executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “What’s interesting is who Mark has surrounded himself with at the moment: His core leaders are all Mark loyalists and have always been there.”
Some of the remaining leaders in Zuckerberg’s inner circle include Javier Olivan, Facebook’s former Chief Growth Officer, who will take over Sandberg’s former position as Meta’s COO after her departure this fall. There’s also Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Meta’s vice president of augmented and virtual reality, and Chris Cox, Meta’s chief product officer. And Clegg will remain Meta’s president of global affairs.
Particularly in Sandberg’s absence, an even smaller proportion of Zuckerberg’s top lieutenants are women. Zuckerberg’s direct female reports include Jennifer Newstead, the company’s chief legal officer and Lori Goler, Meta’s Head of People.
Sandberg’s departure also means there are painfully few women in top positions in the tech industry in general, with some notable exceptions such as Oracle CEO Safra Katz, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Google CFO Ruth Porat.
The end of her tenures at Facebook and Meta marks the end of one of the most notable trajectories in the tech industry. At one point, Sandberg was an almost unilaterally admired business leader who broke down gender barriers in the tech industry, and was reportedly considered for a role in Hillary Clinton’s presidential cabinet, if Clinton was elected. Now, due to her complicated legacy and Meta’s controversial reputation, it’s hard to see Sandberg having a career in politics at all. Sandberg could be looking for another major corporate role, but for now she says she’s focusing on her family and philanthropic projects.