It didn’t take long after Sheryl Sandberg joined Facebook in 2008 for critics to say that she wasn’t providing enough “adult supervision” as the company faced its first major privacy scandals.
In the past several years, many have been quick to criticize Sandberg – long regarded as 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 its role in the January 6 insurrection. But she also helped the company grow from a dorm room experiment to one of the biggest, most influential tech companies on the planet.
After a 14-year run, Sandberg announced on June 1 that she would be stepping down from her role as Meta’s COO. She will keep her seat on the company’s board.
For those paying close attention, Sandberg’s departure has been a long time coming. Her influence at the company was reportedly waning and, at times, she was left publicly apologizing for problems that, ultimately, only her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, had the final authority to fix. You might even ask why she hadn’t resigned earlier, particularly since Meta recently promoted former UK politician Nick Clegg to president of global affairs, which meant he took on the policy duties formerly under Sandberg’s umbrella.
“It’s a decision I didn’t come to lightly, but it’s been 14 years,” Sandberg told Bloomberg on Wednesday, who also joked that her position was “not the most manageable job anyone has ever had.”
Sandberg arguably had one of the toughest gigs in the tech industry, overseeing Facebook’s entire business operations – its ads business and partnerships with other companies, along with content moderation, recruiting, and public relations. It was her long list of duties at the company that allowed Zuckerberg to focus on what he liked best: building products.
“Sheryl architects our ads business, hired great people, forged our management culture, and taught me how to run a company,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a public Facebook post on Wednesday discussing Sandberg’s departure. “She deserves the credit for so much of what Meta is today.”
Sandberg is leaving Meta with a mixed legacy: On the one hand, she helped turn Facebook into one of the most profitable companies in the world, leveraging her expertise as a former Google ad executive to help Facebook figure out how to make money – and lots of it. Sandberg applied Google’s model of organizing the sales organization into teams that focused on attracting large, medium, and small-sized advertisers (when she joined, Facebook’s only ad partner was Microsoft). One year into her tenure, Facebook became a profitable company for the first time, and she continued to develop Facebook’s ads that targeted users based on their social activity.
As one of the few female top-tier tech executives in the entire industry, Sandberg was also a role model to many women inside and outside the company. In 2013, she published Lean In, a book encouraging women to advocate 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 met to implement the ideas in Sandberg’s book. Sandberg’s brand of corporate feminism also attracted some critics who viewed it as placing too much pressure on individual women to improve their personal careers, without giving as much attention to addressing the structural issues causing sexism in the first place. Still, the immediate reception of Sandberg’s book was largely positive: Her book sold over 4 million copies and was a New York Times bestseller for over a year.
Over the years, however, Facebook grew into an increasingly political platform, and Sandberg began to attract public criticism for her role in managing the company’s policies. First, there was controversy surrounding Russia spreading misinformation on Facebook in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election – a problem Zuckerberg had delegated to Sandberg to handle – and soon thereafter came the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. Zuckerberg reportedly blamed Sandberg and her team for the fallout, calling the media reaction “hysteria,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and hired Clegg around that time. Sandberg also publicly defended and apologized for Facebook’s role in being a platform used to facilitate genocide in Myanmar and in promoting political extremism in the US.
At times, Sandberg responded to the negative press about Facebook with aggressive lobbying tactics. Under her leadership, Facebook hired Republican opposition research firm Definers in 2017 to probe the company’s critics, including left-leaning billionaire George Soros and the civil rights organization Color of Change (she later apologized to the group for doing so).
Sandberg went on sabbatical this spring and, during that time, she was once again at the center of controversy when she was accused of using her influence to pressure the Daily Mail to stop reporting about her then-boyfriend, former Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal. A spokesperson for Meta told Recode that the allegations in the Journal article were “absolutely not” a reason for Sandberg’s departure, and that Meta looked into the matter internally, which is now “closed.”
Given all the cumulative scandals Sandberg has had to deal with while second in command at Facebook, it might not come as a surprise to industry insiders that Sandberg is finally leaving Meta. For several years, it has seemed as though her influence was declining within the company and particularly with Zuckerberg, with whom she was previously known to be close. (Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg maintain that they remain very close, and Meta has publicly denied any rift in their relationship.)
“Early on, Sheryl was one of the only COOs in the world where if someone said, ‘We’re sending her instead of Mark,’ folks were perfectly fine with that,” said Katie Harbath, a former director of public policy at Meta who worked with Sandberg. “It was almost like having co-CEOs.”
As cracks began to show in Sandberg’s relationship with Zuckerberg during the Trump administration, the CEO reportedly became more involved in policy decisions. He decided, for instance, that Facebook should take a more hands-off approach in moderating political speech, a move that angered some of Sandberg’s allies in the Democratic Party. Zuckerberg reportedly overruled Sandberg in 2019 by deciding not to take down a manipulated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that made it appear as though she were slurring her words, according to the New York Times.
In Harbath’s words, “Mark and Sheryl’s viewpoints of how various issues should be handled started to diverge more” at that time.
Now that Sandberg is leaving, some industry insiders worry that, without her, there won’t be anyone left to disagree with Zuckerberg on critical decisions.
“Sheryl has had quite a run over those 14 years, from some really high highs to some incredible lows,” said one former Facebook executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “What’s interesting is who Mark has surrounded himself with at this point: His core leaders are all Mark loyalists and have been there forever.”
Some of the remaining leaders in Zuckerberg’s inner circle include Javier Olivan, Facebook’s former chief growth officer, who will be taking 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 remains Meta’s president of global affairs.
Notably, in Sandberg’s absence, an even smaller portion of Zuckerberg’s top lieutenants are women. Zuckerberg’s direct female reports include the company’s chief legal officer Jennifer Newstead and Lori Goler, Meta’s head of people.
Sandberg’s departure also means there are painfully few women in top executive positions in the tech industry at large, with some notable exceptions like Oracle CEO Safra Katz, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and Google CFO Ruth Porat.
The end of her tenure at Facebook and Meta marks the end of one of the most notable trajectories in the tech industry. At one point, Sandberg was a nearly unilaterally admired corporate leader who broke gender barriers in the tech industry, and was reportedly being considered for a role in Hilary Clinton’s presidential cabinet, if Clinton had been elected. Now, because of her complicated legacy and because of Meta’s controversial reputation, it’s hard to see Sandberg having a career in politics at all. Sandberg could seek out another big business role, but for now, she says she’s focusing on her family and philanthropic projects.