Sheryl Sandberg intended to spend just five years at Facebook when she joined in 2008 as Mark Zuckerberg’s right-hand woman. Instead, she stayed 14 years, becoming one of the most recognisable, and polarising figures, in Silicon Valley.
When she steps down this autumn as chief operating officer of Facebook, now known as Meta, she will leave behind a mixed legacy. On the one hand, she has built an image as a seasoned executive and female role model who helped grow a $538bn company by supercharging its digital advertising machine.
But Sandberg has also become a lightning rod for criticism, accused of attempting to brush under the rug controversies over moderation and privacy, as Facebook lurched from scandal to scandal after the 2016 US election.
“Facebook would not be Facebook without Sheryl,” said David Jones, chief executive of The Brandtech Group and former chief executive of advertising group Havas. “She built the foundation that allowed Facebook to grow into what it became — good and bad.”
For Sandberg and Zuckerberg, the moment marks a crossroads, as the power duo, who have drifted apart in recent years, now seek to remake their images separately after years of scrutiny.
Zuckerberg has been focused on his vision for the metaverse, at a time when Facebook’s share price is flailing, growth is slowing and competition is rising. Sandberg, a committed Democrat, has said she intends to focus on her family and philanthropic endeavours, amid speculation that she may enter politics. She will remain on Meta’s board.
Sandberg also leaves under a cloud following a report by The Wall Street Journal alleging she had pressured the Daily Mail to drop negative coverage of her former boyfriend and Activision Blizzard chief executive Bobby Kotick. Meta said the matter was now closed.
Separately on Thursday, the Journal reported an investigation into her use of company resources to plan her forthcoming wedding to marketing executive Tom Bernthal. A Meta spokesperson said of the report: “None of this had any impact on her personal decision to leave.”
Sandberg has been credited with transforming a scrappy start-up manned by twenty-something “tech bros” into an enviable digital ad empire during the first half of her tenure. She proclaimed that she was “put on this planet to scale organisations” — and she did. According to Facebook’s initial public offering filings, in 2009 the company’s sales stood at $777mn. By 2021, Meta generated $117bn in revenue.
Her success, in part, came down to her meticulous attention to detail and her prowess as a consummate networker, associates say. Marketers describe her spending more time with advertising executives than her rivals did, such as her former employer Google, and hosting glitzy dinners at her Menlo Park house to woo clients. She would listen to, and then act on, their demands, they said.
“She played an important role in getting Mark Zuckerberg to take the advertising community very seriously,” said Jones.
Sandberg also surrounded herself with close allies, mainly women, from her previous roles at Harvard, the Treasury and Google — dubbed “Friends of Sheryl Sandberg”, or FOSS. Many saw the FOSS phenomenon as Sandberg championing women in alignment with her corporate feminism manifesto, Lean In; others bemoaned the creation of such cliques.
“When you had her behind your back, it was incredibly empowering, but if you don’t have the Sheryl blessing, it can be very limiting,” one former senior staffer said.
Sandberg’s ability to work the room brought in business, and was crucial to her establishment of Facebook’s public policy and communications team. She personally took up the role of lobbyist-in-chief, meeting with regulators and lawmakers while Zuckerberg focused on product innovation.
As Silicon Valley boomed, members of Congress actively pursued meetings with Sandberg before the 2016 election in a bid to embrace the tech sector, according to former colleagues. But it did not last.
Her public profile as Zuckerberg’s second-in-command left her in the line of fire — in front of lawmakers, clients and the public — as the company was hit by a series of scandals following the 2016 election.
“Sheryl was always the soft power with the phone calls and charm offensive when Facebook faced a crisis,” one advertising agency executive said.
The ads business model she pioneered has also come under scrutiny. Critics and civil society groups have argued that toxic and provocative posts were rewarded in a bid to grab users’ attention, while its harvesting of user data for targeting also contributed to privacy lapses.
Sandberg also developed a reputation for failing to identify issues then becoming defensive when they erupted into scandals, seeking to control press narratives and ward off regulators.
“It’s not about what she did — it’s about the response. Many of these things were unintended consequences. But you then have to turn around and act,” said another advertising executive.
This so-called delay, deny, deflect approach was applied to her handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal as well as the revelations of Russian disinformation campaigns around the 2016 election, according to multiple reports.
At times, it escalated into finger-pointing. The New York Times in 2018 revealed that under Sandberg’s watch, Facebook hired Definers Public Affairs, a Republican-leaning consultancy, to spread misinformation about competitors and critics.
More recently, she caused a backlash for minimising the notion that Facebook played a role in the events leading to the January 6 storming of the US Capitol, arguing that it was “largely” organised on other platforms.
Some expressed sympathy for her position; Zuckerberg, after all, is the ultimate decision maker. “She felt cornered around those things, which continued to increase the ‘deflect’ approach,” a former senior employee said. “She could never get out of the crouching position because there’s just crisis after crisis after crisis coming up for the company.”
Her departure does not come out of the blue, according to insiders. In recent years, Sandberg had stepped back from the limelight, and her influence has waned, as tensions with Zuckerberg simmered.
“Year over year, the gulf between Sheryl and Mark and what they kind of thought should be done from a content moderation standpoint certainly grew,” the former employee said, adding that Zuckerberg’s free expression stance was clashing with Sandberg’s desire for tighter moderation.
In his missive about Sandberg’s departure, Zuckerberg said that Javier Olivan, the company’s chief growth officer, will take on a “more traditional COO role” in which he will be “focused internally and operationally”.
Despite Sandberg being a “superstar who defined the COO role in her own unique way”, Zuckerberg wrote that “Meta has reached the point where it makes sense for our product and business groups to be more closely integrated, rather than having all the business and operations functions organised separately from our products”.
The shake-up consolidates Zuckerberg’s own power as he takes on many of the people who used to report directly to her.
Zuckerberg described the move as the “end of an era”. But with it, he also signalled his intention to start a new one — in which Sandberg’s previous role, with all of its power and breadth, will no longer exist.