As Meta gradually evolves from Facebook, and focuses on the next stage of digital connection, it will be doing so without one of the company’s key leaders, with COO Sheryl Sandberg announcing today that she will leave the company in the next few months.
In a long post on (of course) Facebook, Sandberg has provided an overview of her experiences working at The Social Network for the last 14 years, with Sandberg coming into the company in 2008, just four years after Mark Zuckerberg created the first iteration of the app in a Harvard dorm room.
Sandberg has played a key role in developing Meta’s business, overseeing the introduction of its ads infrastructure, and acting as a central figure in almost every major update at the company ever since.
As per Sandberg:
“Sitting by Mark’s side for these 14 years has been the honor and privilege of a lifetime. Mark is a true visionary and a caring leader. He sometimes says that we grew up together, and we have. He was just 23 and I was already 38 when we met, but together we have been through the massive ups and downs of running this company, as well as his marriage to the magnificent Priscilla, the sorrow of their miscarriages and the joy of their childbirths, the sudden loss of Dave, my engagement to Tom, and so much more. In the critical moments of my life, in the highest highs and in the depths of true lows, I have never had to turn to Mark, because he was already there.”
It’s difficult to gauge the true significance of Sandberg’s influence over Meta, and Zuckerberg himself, with her experience and perspective providing critical guidance for the company through its various iterations and controversies.
That’s often left Sandberg as a key target for Meta’s many critics, which Sandberg also reflects on in her exit note:
“The debate around social media has changed beyond recognition since those early days. To say it hasn’t always been easy is an understatement. But it should be hard. The products we make have a huge impact, so we have the responsibility to build them in a way that protects privacy and keeps people safe. Just as I believe wholeheartedly in our mission, our industry, and the overwhelmingly positive power of connecting people, I and the dedicated people of Meta have felt our responsibilities deeply.“
In addition to navigating these various challenges directly, Sandberg has also been a sounding board for Zuckerberg, with their desks positioned next to each other for the majority of her time at the company.
In this sense, Sandberg’s influence has likely been larger then signified by her own role, with Zuckerberg being thrust into one of the most prominent a powerful corporate jobs at a very young age.
It’s that guidance and wisdom that the company will likely miss the most, especially as it moves into another era of uncertainty, and challenges in connection. The metaverse holds significant promise, but also huge risk, and Meta will need to get it right to ensure that it doesn’t exacerbate harm in its quest for dominance.
The company doesn’t have a great record on this front, but the lessons that it’s learned over time are embedded in the experience of its leaders, and in this sense, Sandberg’s exit will be a major loss.
“I am beyond grateful to the thousands of brilliant, dedicated people at Meta with whom I have had the privilege of working over the last 14 years. Every day someone does something that stops me in my tracks and reminds me how lucky I am to be surrounded by such remarkable colleagues. This team is filled with exceptionally talented people who have poured their hearts and minds into building products that have had a profound impact on the world.”
In response, Zuckerberg has also shared a similarly long post paying tribute to his second in command, while also noting that Sandberg will continue to serve on Meta’s board of directors after she transitions out of her day-to-day management role in the coming months.
Zuckerberg says that Javier Olivan will take over as Chief Operating Officer, though the role itself will be reduced, reflecting the significance of Sandberg’s work.
Again, it’s hard to say, as an outsider, what this will mean for Meta moving forward, but Sandberg has, in the majority, seemed wholly driven by improving Meta’s systems, and working to address potential harms where possible, while also navigating a rapidly growing business. That’s not to excuse Sandberg from Meta’s various flaws as well, but again, as with Zuckerberg, Sandberg carries the scars of Meta’s past missteps, which makes her an invaluable business resource, and a big subtraction from its ranks.
So what comes next after leaving one of the most significant roles at one of the most influential companies in the world? Sandberg says that she’ll be taking time to focus on her foundation and philanthropic work, before assessing what, if anything else, is on the cards for her career.
And yes, I have read more than one industry analyst speculating that Elon Musk may look to tap Sandberg to become the next CEO of Twitter, which I don’t see happening, especially given Sandberg’s commitment to the Meta board. But it’s an interesting prospect, which speaks to the respect that Sandberg has earned in her time developing Meta as a business.
Will Meta be the same without Sandberg? Likely not, but right now, in the midst of its biggest shift, seems like the right time for Sandberg to step aside and focus on something new.