Sheryl Sandberg calls it quits

She was Silicon Valley's most famous COO. Did she stay too long?

Sheryl Sandberg calls it quits
Sheryl Sandberg speaks during a press conference in London on January 21, 2020. (Dominic Lipinski / Getty Images)

Sheryl Sandberg is stepping down as Meta’s chief operating officer. In a 1,532-word Facebook post today, she said she would leave her day-to-day duties some time in the fall, while remaining on the company’s board. “I still believe as strongly as ever in our mission,” she wrote.

Sandberg’s announcement came on the first day of June, though it might just as easily have come on any other day this year. Or in the past seven years, really.

Sandberg held many roles at Facebook over the years, and helped guide it through several tumultuous periods. In conversations with people who worked closely with her, though, there were really only two distinct eras in Sandberg’s time at Facebook. They fit neatly, into two seven-year periods.

From 2008 to 2015, Sandberg played a critical role in Facebook’s rise. Coming from a top business job at Google, she gave the young company a credibility among advertisers that it previously lacked. Mark Zuckerberg trusted her with functions that he viewed as less critical to the company’s success than the product and growth teams on which he spent more of his time.

Sandberg established and grew the policy and communications teams, and along the way became one of the most prominent business leaders in America. For half a decade, fast-growing startups would talk openly about “finding a Sheryl” to help them grow and mature. Sandberg was the blueprint.

The second era, from 2016 on, looked very different. By the end of that year, Facebook would find itself suddenly and permanently on the defensive. Each month seemed to bring a fresh scandal: revelations about data privacy problems; the spread of hate speech and links to genocide; abuse by state-sponsored hackers and trolls; spiraling investigations by the Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general, and countless other regulators around the world.

In between the first and second eras, of course, Sandberg experienced two cataclysms. The first was the abrupt death of her much-loved husband, Dave Goldberg, in May 2015. The second was the election of Donald Trump in November of the following year.

Sandberg was, understandably, leveled by the loss of her husband. For Facebook, the timing was particularly unfortunate. In the months after she returned to the company, Russia’s Internet Research Agency was secretly using the platform to sow dissent among Americans in the run-up to the election, using fake accounts, a hack-and-leak campaign, and other tools of deception. None of it would be revealed until after Trump won, but subsequent reporting from the New York Times portrayed Sandberg as more interested in public perception of Facebook than she was about the Russian attacks themselves.

Though the company took pains to deny it, the aftermath of the election saw Sandberg’s sphere of influence gradually contract. In 2018 Zuckerberg undertook a major re-organization of his executive teams. Among other things, it brought ads, platform integrity and other “central platform” functions under Javier Olivan, who joined the company before Sandberg and would report directly to the CEO. (Olivan will now be COO, albeit “a more traditional” one, per a Zuckerberg post today.)

Also in 2018, Sandberg helped recruit Nick Clegg to be its head of global affairs; in February, he began to oversee policy and communications as well. Both teams had formerly been Sandberg’s. Marne Levine, another Sandberg recruit, was named chief business officer last year. One by one, Sandberg gave up what had been her core responsibilities — mostly willingly, I think. Last year the Wall Street Journal, using leaked documents, reported that the share of employees reporting to her shrank significantly.

By the end Sandberg occupied a role that seemed to me quite small, for a leader of her stature: focused on overseeing the company’s efforts to promote small businesses, encouraging them to use the company’s ad tools. It felt more like a part-time consulting project than work befitting the COO.