Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook parent Meta and one of the most prominent women leaders in Silicon Valley, is stepping down. In a Facebook post, Sandberg announced that she is stepping down this fall to focus on her philanthropy work.
Long seen as the No. 2 executive at Facebook, Sandberg is responsible for building the advertising business that contributes a large chunk of the social media giant’s revenue. Her 14 year tenure at Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) can be seen in two distinct phases. The first phase saw her build Facebook into a giant social media platform while the second phase saw the company get embroiled in controversies which touched her own life.
Who is Sheryl Sandberg?
Born in 1969, Sheryl Sandberg is an American business executive and a philanthropist. She enrolled at Harvard College in 1987 and graduated summa cum laude in Bachelor of Arts in economics in 1991. She was also awarded the John H. Williams Prize for the top graduating student in economics.
At Harvard, she met Professor Lawrence Summers, who became her mentor and hired her to be his research assistant at the World Bank. In 1993, Sandberg enrolled at Harvard Business School and earned her MBA with highest distinction in 1995.
Like most Harvard graduates, Sandberg took a management consultant role at McKinsey for a year and then joined Summers back when he was serving as the United States Secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton. Her stint at the treasury department made her a household name and Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, decided to recruit her.
“When you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship you don’t ask, ‘What seat?’ You just get on,” Sandberg recalled Schmidt telling her in an episode of the podcast “When to Jump.”
Sandberg joining Google in 2001 should be seen as a turning point in her career and one that made her a household name in Silicon Valley. She joined Google to work on online advertising programmes, AdWords and AdSense. In 2008, she left Google as VP for global online sales and operations, and became COO of Facebook, the fledgling social media company valued at $15B.
Sheryl Sandbery’s legacy at Facebook and Meta
Facebook was a 4-year-old startup on a meteoric rise led by a young Mark Zuckerberg when Sandberg joined in 2008. It is believed that Facebook had around 500 employees at that time and her joining Facebook was seen as Zuckerberg’s way of distancing himself from business practices and focus his energy on technology and product.
As Facebook kept growing at an unbelievable pace, there was this looming question of which direction Zuckerberg will take for his startup. It was anticipated that he will follow Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to step aside and allow a seasoned executive to lead the company.
Instead, Zuckerberg brought onboard Sandberg as his lieutenant and one responsible for building the business. At the time of joining Facebook, Sandberg had said she intends to stay for roughly five years but after 14, she is leaving a company that has not only become huge but also controversial and one with a market cap of around $510B right now.
During the first seven years of her tenure, Sandberg developed the advertising business and many observers saw her as the only adult in the room. She played a pivotal role in building Facebook’s advertising format for desktop computers before building its mobile advertising strategy. In 2016, Facebook reported revenue of $27.6B compared to $153M generated in 2007 and Sandberg had succeeded in turning Facebook into a viable business.
However, the past seven years at Facebook (now Meta) haven’t been as harmonious as Sandberg would have wanted. Her exit has been a Silicon Valley chatter for so long that her leaving the company loses all the fanfare.
One of the biggest moments for Sandbery during her COO role at Facebook came when her husband and CEO of SurveyMonkey, Dave Goldberg, passed away in 2015. In the months after returning to Facebook, she discovered a platform being used by Russia’s Internet Research Agency to sow distrust among Americans and misinformation that became rampant on the platform.
The activities reached a climax with the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016. Most of the activities on Facebook were not known to its leadership until after Trump won and when the bombshell revelations became public, Sandberg’s own image transformed from being a business pioneer to one focussed only on public perception of Facebook.
In 2018, Facebook got embroiled in another scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a firm that improperly used Facebook data to profile voters. The events led to discord between Sandberg and Zuckerberg, who continued to present an united front.
The abuse of its platform by Russia’s IRA and Cambridge Analytica forced Zuckerberg to announce major reorganisation which resulted in Sandberg losing her control over various teams. Javier Olivan, who was handed responsibility for platform integrity and ad functions, will now be elevated to the role of COO.
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any,” she wrote in her 2013 business book, Lean In.
Even though she was only the COO of the company, Sandberg was widely seen to be at the pedestal of Facebook. Each controversy only led to her losing control even though there was a call for Mark Zuckerberg to step down. Even now, it is Sandberg who is moving away while Zuckerberg continues to build on his dream of a metaverse.
What’s next for Sheryl Sandberg?
In a Facebook post, Sandberg has announced that she is stepping down from day-to-day role as COO of the company. However, she will continue to serve on the board of Meta, which will change its stock ticker symbol to Meta on June 9. She has also added her plans to focus on her personal philanthropy and her foundation, Lean In.
“I still believe as strong as ever in our mission,” she wrote.
“Sheryl architected our ads business, hired great people, forged our management culture, and taught me how to run a company,” Zuckerberg wrote. He added, “It’s the end of an era.”
Her exit today will likely exonerate her from all the controversies that surround Facebook parent Meta and the number of investigations being carried out by the Federal Trade Commission and the state attorneys general. However, there is also this looming question of whether she will join some other company as CEO.
There is already a growing chatter of Elon Musk considering Sheryl Sandberg for the role of CEO once he completes his purchase of Twitter. Musk has publicly revealed his plans to become interim CEO of Twitter and intends to get rid of ads for Twitter’s business model.
However, Sandberg’s experience with public policy and ability to build viable business at not one but two Silicon Valley giants, will make her a top consideration. Sandberg has also publicly acknowledged her interest in politics and it wouldn’t come as a surprise if she joins the Biden administration.