It wasn’t long after Sheryl Sandberg joined Facebook in 2008 for critics to say she wasn’t providing enough “adult supervision,” as the company faced its first major privacy scandals.
In recent years, many have quickly criticized Sandberg, long considered the number 2 person on Facebook, now known as Meta, for the company’s many mistakes. This includes everything from allowing Russian robots to spread propaganda before the 2016 U.S. presidential election to their role in the January 6 insurgency. But it also helped the company grow from a bedroom experiment to one of the largest and most influential technology companies on the planet.
After a 14-year career, Sandberg announced on June 1 that he would step down as COO of Meta. She will keep her seat on the company board.
For those who pay close attention, the Sandberg march takes a long time. His influence in the company was waning and he was sometimes left publicly apologizing for the problems that ultimately only his boss, Mark Zuckerberg, had the final authority to solve. You might even wonder why he hadn’t resigned before, especially since Meta recently promoted former British politician Nick Clegg to president of global affairs, which meant he took on political roles before under the umbrella of Sandberg.
“It’s a decision I didn’t take lightly, but it’s been 14 years,” Sandberg told Bloomberg on Wednesday, who also joked that his position “was not the most manageable job anyone has ever had.”
Sandberg had one of the toughest gigs in the tech industry, overseeing all of Facebook’s business operations: its ad business and collaborations with other companies, along with content moderation, hiring, and public relations. It was his long list of roles in the company that allowed Zuckerberg to focus on what he enjoyed most: building products.
“Sheryl designed our ad business, 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 about Sandberg’s departure. “She deserves credit for much of what Meta is today.”
Sandberg is leaving Meta with a mixed legacy: on the one hand, he helped make Facebook one of the most profitable companies in the world, leveraging his experience as a former Google ad executive to help Facebook figure out how to make money , and a lot. of that. Sandberg applied Google’s model of organizing sales organization into teams focused on attracting large, medium, and small advertisers (when it joined, Facebook’s only advertising partner was Microsoft). One year after its tenure, Facebook became a profitable business for the first time and continued to develop Facebook ads that targeted users based on their social activity.
As one of the few women top technology executives in the entire industry, Sandberg was also a role model for many women inside and outside the company. In 2013 he published Stretch to, a book that encourages women to defend themselves at work and in their family life, which inspired a social movement of tens of thousands of “Lean In” women’s circles that came together to implement the ideas from Sandberg’s book. Sandberg’s corporate feminism brand also attracted some critics who felt it put too much pressure on individual women to improve their personal careers, without paying as much attention to addressing the structural issues that cause sexism in the first place. However, the immediate reception of Sandberg’s book was very positive: his book sold over 4 million copies and was a New York Times bestseller for over a year.
Over the years, however, Facebook became an increasingly political platform and Sandberg began to attract public criticism for its role in managing company policies. First, there was the controversy over the misrepresentation of misinformation by Russia on Facebook before the 2016 U.S. presidential election — an issue Zuckerberg had delegated to Sandberg to deal with — and soon after. The Cambridge Analytica scandal came in 2018. Zuckerberg reportedly blamed Sandberg and his team for the consequences, calling the media reaction “hysterical,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and hired Clegg for those times. Sandberg also publicly defended and apologized for the role of Facebook as a platform used to facilitate genocide in Myanmar and to promote political extremism in the United States.
Sandberg sometimes responded negatively to the press on Facebook with aggressive lobbying tactics. Under his leadership, Facebook hired Republican opposition research firm Definers in 2017 to investigate critics of the company, including left-wing billionaire George Soros and the civil rights organization Color of Change. later apologized to the group for doing so).
Sandberg spent a sabbatical year this spring, and during that time was back in the spotlight 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 the Wall Street Journal. A Meta spokesman told Recode that the allegations in the Journal article “were not at all” a reason for Sandberg’s departure and that Meta studied the matter internally, which is now “closed”.
Given all the accumulated scandals Sandberg has had to face while at the helm of Facebook, it may come as no surprise to industry experts that Sandberg is finally leaving Meta. For several years, it seemed that her influence was waning within the company and, above all, with Zuckerberg, with whom she had previously been known to be close. (Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg maintain that they remain very close, and Meta has publicly denied any breakup in their relationship.)
“At first, Sheryl was one of the only operations directors in the world where if someone said, ‘Let’s send him instead of Mark,’ people would be fine with that,” said Katie Harbath, a former director of public policy. of Meta. who worked with Sandberg. “It was almost like having a co-CEO.”
As cracks in Sandberg’s relationship with Zuckerberg began to show during the Trump administration, the CEO became more involved in political decisions. He decided, for example, that Facebook should take a freer approach to moderating political discourse, a move that angered some of Sandberg’s allies in the Democratic Party. According to the New York Times, Zuckerberg overturned Sandberg in 2019 by deciding not to remove a manipulated video from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that pretended to make her words difficult.
In Harbath’s words, “Mark and Sheryl’s views on how to deal with various issues began to diverge more” at the time.
Now that Sandberg is leaving, some industry experts are concerned that without her, there will be no one who disagrees with Zuckerberg in critical decisions.
“Sheryl has had a great deal of experience over these 14 years, from some very high highs to some incredible lows,” said a former Facebook executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “What’s interesting is who Mark has been surrounded by right now: his top leaders are all loyal to Mark and have been there forever.”
Some of the remaining leaders in Zuckerberg’s inner circle include Javier Olivan, former Facebook growth director, who will take over Sandberg’s former position as COO of Meta after his departure this fall. Also present are Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Meta’s Vice President of Augmented and Virtual Reality, and Chris Cox, Meta’s Product Director. And Clegg remains Meta’s president of global affairs.
In particular, in Sandberg’s absence, an even smaller portion of Zuckerberg’s top lieutenants are women. Zuckerberg’s female direct reports include legal director Jennifer Newstead and Meta chief Lori Goler.
Sandberg’s departure also means that there are few women in the top management positions in the technology industry in general, with a few notable exceptions such as Oracle CEO Safra Katz, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and CFO from Google, Ruth Porat.
The end of his term on Facebook and Meta marks the end of one of the most outstanding careers in the technology industry. At one point, Sandberg was an almost unilaterally admired corporate leader who broke down gender barriers in the technology industry and was reportedly being considered for a role in Hilary Clinton’s presidential cabinet if Clinton had been elected. . Now, because of his complicated legacy and Meta’s controversial reputation, it’s hard to see Sandberg having a career in politics. Sandberg could look for another big business role, but for now, he says he is focusing on his family and philanthropic projects.