Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s (formerly Facebook) chief operating officer and second in command at the company, is stepping down after 14 years at the social media behemoth. After Mark Zuckerberg, it was Sandberg who made many key decisions at the company, including several important early hirings and also helped build Facebook’s mammoth advertising business.
We look at her key contributions to Facebook and Meta, including some of the criticism and controversy she has faced.
Joined in 2008, help build and scale ad business
As Sheryl Sandberg recounted in her Facebook post, where she announced her resignation, it took several dinners and conversations before Zuckerberg offered her the job in 2008. Sandberg had previously worked at Google, where she helped build its advertising and sales business.
According to a 2011 profile by New Yorker, Sandberg was the one who expanded Google’s AdWords and AdSense projects, which would eventually ensure billions of dollars worth of revenue for the search engine giant. And when she went to Facebook, she did the same, using much of the knowledge she had gained from Google.
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In fact, Sandberg notes that when she joined Facebook, the company had little advertising. Many might not remember that Facebook’s big appeal was private wall pages in 2007-2008, compared to other social networks. Sandberg remembers that “most advertisers I met wanted to take over our homepage, like The Incredible Hulk movie had on MySpace.”
The same New Yorker profile notes that Facebook had become profitable by 2010, as discreet ads made their way to the social network. Facebook went from 70 million users to nearly 700 million in the three years she joined. It also quotes Zuckerberg as saying Sandberg was essentially handling all the “things I don’t want to.” This included “advertising strategy, hiring and firing, management, and dealing with political issues.”
So, she helped build much of the management structure at the company.
Zuckerberg in his post talking about her departure wrote, “When Sheryl joined me in 2008, I was only 23 years old, and I barely knew anything about running a company,” and that Facebook was not yet profitable. “Sheryl architected our ads business, hired great people, forged our management culture, and taught me how to run a company,” he added.
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Key hirings, creating company policies
Sandberg was also important to some of Facebook’s key hirings early on, and set in place the company’s key policies. For instance, she extended the maternity and paternity leave to four months at Facebook, which was in line with her ideas of gender equality. She hired key executives at Facebook. The list includes Lori Goler as head of recruiting, who is still at the company, Elliot Schrage, former vice-president for global communications, marketing and public policy at Facebook, and Priti Youssef Choksi, Facebook’s former director, Business Development and director, Corporate Development.
She also hired David Fischer, Facebook’s former chief revenue officer, who left the company in March 2021. Fischer was formerly at Google and helped build AdWords technology. When Sandberg hired him for Facebook, he joined as its VP of Advertising and Global Operations.
But Sandberg’s aggressive hiring of her Google colleagues did not leave her previous company too happy. The same New Yorker profile notes that some Google executives thought she had not played “fair in hiring engineers and had taken advantage of inside information.”
There’s no doubt Sandberg was the one who helped build the company’s key business, made it profitable, and hired key management.
Joins board in 2012, role in Facebook’s IPO
One of the early criticisms of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook was that its board was all male. This changed in 2012 when Sandberg joined the board, though many pointed out that this was hardly a change, given she was an insider at the company. She will continue to serve on Meta’s board, even as she leaves her role as COO.
Facebook became a publicly listed company in 2012, but the IPO had its fair share of problems—although it would recover later as the advertising business grew. But there’s no doubt Sandberg played a crucial role in Facebook going public.
She helped scale the advertising business, which in turn ensured profits. She had already declared in 2011 that the company would go public soon, which she did the next year. Sandberg reportedly sold half of her shares in her in 2014, though she still has a large stake in the company. It should be noted that as she leaves, Meta’s advertising business has been seen to slump due to various factors, including Apple’s privacy changes on iOS.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In
Sandberg also deserves recognition for being a prominent woman leader at a tech company at a time when women were missing from these top leadership positions. She has been an advocate for women’s equality in the workplace, and her best-selling book Lean In takes a closer look at this topic. The book is intended to help women achieve their career goals.
But others have criticized the book for being too elitist and not taking into account the struggles that working-class women face. Criticism aside, Sandberg has been outspoken about the need for more women executives in companies.
During a Ted Talk in 2010, she talked about how women are nowhere at the top when it comes to most professions. She has also talked about how women managers face a much harder choice than men, and that often women drop out.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal 2018
Sandberg faced increasingly negative scrutiny once Facebook’s role in elections in the US and other countries started getting viewed critically. This began after the 2016 US election with allegations of Russia’s involvement in spreading disinformation and that perhaps Facebook did not do enough to quell these problems.
As Sandberg was viewed as the one handling policy at the platform, she did face most of the scrutiny along with Zuckerberg. The Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 revealed that Facebook data was used to target and swing voters in key states in the US. In fact, The New York Times revealed in a report that Sandberg was especially angry when Facebook’s security chief Alex Stamos told the board that the company had not contained Russia’s disinformation networks. Sandberg later told Stamos, “You threw us under the bus!”
She later carried out an “aggressive lobbying campaign”, according to NYT, to thwart critics and direct anger toward Facebook’s rival companies. Publicly though, Sandberg made very few comments during any of the company’s recent crises. Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg had to testify before the US Congress on many of these issues related to disinformation, interference in elections, user privacy, etc.
According to Bloomberg, “Sandberg was personally criticized by Facebook employees for surrounding herself with trusted lieutenants who filtered bad news, and failing to address problems until they developed into public crises…”
And the negative press did not stop at her mishandling of Facebook’s crises. Another WSJ report stated that she had used her influence to try and suppress negative news about her boyfriend, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, who was accused of serious sexual harassment. He also dated Sandberg from 2016 to 2019. Meta is still investigating this, though this is not believed to be the reason for her departure from her.
Meanwhile, another WSJ report noted Sandberg has told people “she feels burned out and has become a punching bag for the company’s problems.”
Her departure also comes at a time when Meta pivots toward virtual reality, away from advertising where Sandberg was typically more focused. The report notes that she has “been notably absent from many meetings about the company’s metaverse plans.”
While Sandberg’s image has suffered over the past few years, she has no doubt played a critical role in helping Facebook, now Meta, go beyond a niche social network into the giant corporation that it is today. Her departure from her marks the end of an era at the company. Mark Zuckerberg has also acknowledged that he does not intend to fill her in Sandberg’s shoes. “I do n’t plan to replace Sheryl’s role in our existing structure. I’m not sure that would be possible since ella she’s a superstar who defined the COO role of ella in her own unique way, ”he wrote. While Javier Olivan will become the next Facebook COO, the role will be different from what Sandberg did in the past, he added.