One of the most powerful women in tech leadership is stepping down.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO, broke the news on her Facebook page stating, “Today, I am sharing the news that after 14 years, I will be leaving Meta.”
Sandberg met with Mark Zuckerberg at a party at C-Suite executive cum LinkedIn Influencer Dan Rosensweig’s. The moment she walked through the door, she was introduced to Zuckerberg. It prompted a conversation on Facebook. It led to a six-month dance between her and Zuckerberg.
“Many months later, after countless – and I mean countless – dinners and conversations with Mark, he offered me this job.” At the time, Zuckerberg felt strongly that “people would put their real selves online to connect with other people,” an idea she found was so mesmerizing that “we stood by that door and talked for the rest of the night.” Sandberg describes him as a “true visionary.”
Once ensconced at Facebook, she said, “I asked Mark for three things – that we would sit next to each other, that he would meet with me one-on-one every week, and that in those meetings he would give me honest feedback when he thought I messed something up. Mark said yes to all three but added that the feedback would have to be mutual. To this day, he has kept those promises. We still sit together (OK, not through COVID), meet one-on-one every week, and the feedback is immediate and real.”
With Sandberg as part of the organisation, Zuckerberg took a month off. There was considerable floundering without much direction and next to zero contact with the CEO. Their relationship has evolved into a strong friendship since surviving miscarriages (the Zuckerbergs), death (her husband), births (again the Zuckerbergs), engagement (both), and marriages (again both). “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.”
There was of course the purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp, Cambridge Analytica, fake news, the US presidential election in 2016, attempts to buy TikTok, run-ins with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Libra, and basically their very colossal existence as Big Tech.
14 years down the road, Sandberg will be remembered as Zuckerberg’s right hand. She will also be remembered as the woman behind the legendary Lean In movement. And for stating that the single most important decision she ever made in her life, is marrying her late husband, Dave Goldberg, pointing out that women cannot grow in their careers without being married to a supportive husband. Her book Lean In – Women, Work & The Will To Lead stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for well over a year, selling 4.2 million copies worldwide. NYT states “and still sells roughly 12,500 copies a month, in all formats.” Sandberg, Lean In, and leaning in became phenomena, landing her on Time (where Zuckerberg would later be named Time Person of the Year) and Fortune covers and TV shows 60 Minutes and Nightline. It birthed a legion of Lean In Circles, gatherings where believers, both male, and female, discussed the gospel according to Sandberg.
When she joined Facebook, it was the little start-up that could. She became infamous for leaving work promptly at 5:30 pm to be with her then young children. “The messages were everywhere that women – and I – could not be both a leader and a good mother, but I wanted to give it a try. Once I started, I realised that to see my children before they went to sleep, I had to leave the office at 5:30 p.m., which was when work was just getting going for many of my new colleagues.” Her 5:30 pm exit did not go unnoticed. She describes fighting for it almost as an act of bravery. Eventually, she went public with her work hours, hoping more employers would allow female employees the freedom to exercise such options. She was accused of elitism while living a privileged life with a peripheral ring of hired help, something most women cannot afford.
As a powerful woman in tech leadership, Sandberg was convinced women were not making it to the C-Suite as a result of not “leaning in,” a phrase that meant “women are doing what’s necessary, becoming more courageous, confident and successful doing what they perhaps don’t even want to do. Perhaps we can ease out of the idea of leaning in, out, or back, and move toward the idea of authentic life choices.” It was regarded as an act of feminism on Sandberg’s part and initially, the messaging was perceived as revolutionary. Meanwhile in Lean In Circles globally, women tried – they really did – to lean in as Sandberg took the idea on tour.
Except, “A May 2018 Bloomberg Businessweek piece points out that five years later, Lean In may have helped with some incremental advancements for individual women in corporate America, but it doesn’t seem to have moved the needle at all on big issues like overall pay equity.” Even Michelle Obama chimed in saying, “And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.” A large part of her farewell letter is dedicated to her colleagues, and rightly so.
As Sandberg exits, her legacy includes some of the biggest controversies as seen above. Her future lies in her foundation The Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation and philanthropy, her second marriage, and a blended family. “When I took this job in 2008, I hoped I would be in this role for five years. 14 years later, it is time for me to write the next chapter of my life. I am not entirely sure what the future will bring – I have learned no one ever is.”