This week, Meta’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, announced she will leave the company after 14 years in its leadership ranks.
Sandberg joined Facebook, Meta’s parent, in the company’s early years, and she’s credited with helping build it into the behemoth it is today by converting consumer data into ad revenue.
So, what does her exit mean for Meta and its future? Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams discussed that topic with Cecilia Kang, a tech policy reporter for The New York Times and co-author of the book “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination.”
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Cecilia Kang: She had come from Google, where she basically built Google’s ad business from almost nothing into a multibillion-dollar business. The other thing that she was well known for was her experience in Washington. She had been the chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers during the [Bill] Clinton administration. And what she understood was how to turn what Facebook was into something that was very profitable. What Facebook had was millions of people, at the time when she joined, who were giving real information. All this information, she understood deeply, was valuable. And it was valuable to advertisers because advertisers wanted to know what people were really thinking and what they wanted.
Kimberly Adams: How has she ridden the sort of ups and downs with our culture, and our society’s relationship with using that information for targeted advertising?
Kang: I think Sheryl Sandberg oftentimes likes to point to the positive things of using Facebook, such as how dissidents may organize to protest an authoritarian government. She likes to point often to how Facebook was used during the Arab Spring, for example. For quite some time, she was defensive, as was [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg, about the more negative effects, which is the abuse of data, the widespread use of data and how third parties access data. And that changed in the last few years, but by then, I think her reputation had become tarnished. And that the company’s scandals overcame a lot of the more positive parts of her reputation as well, which extends beyond being a business leader at Facebook. She’s well known for being a feminist business icon.
Adams: You mentioned this a bit, but Sandberg became sort of a cultural icon for feminism and women leaders in the workplace for some after publishing her book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” in 2013. How did her public perception change after that book, and then after all of these scandals came out?
Kang: You know, she put herself in the public eye with the publication of her book. She had a very specific message, and really a mantra, which was that women should sit at tables, ask for raises, to work hard within the system, to make sure that they’re heard and to be aggressive within their own careers. She received some backlash for that message that very much resonated with a lot of people and inspired a lot of people. But for many others, they felt like that message didn’t include them, either because they didn’t feel like they could get into the system. And it was one thing for a woman who has a lot of resources to be able to say, “Just lean in and you’ll achieve success.” For a lot of women, that message was not their reality. And, you know, so she had kind of two jobs, if you will. There was her Facebook job and then there was her [other] job, which was cultivating her brand as a feminist leader. And I think that she will always be known for both of those things. And both of those jobs, if you will, really have been and will continue to be under scrutiny.
Adams: Lawmakers have been talking about increasing regulations on Meta and other social media companies for years now. What has been Sandberg’s role in the lobbying and the politics side of that?
Kang: Yeah, well, she’s in charge of the whole lobbying business. She doesn’t get involved in the weeds of daily operations. But this is all under her purview. That said, she visits Washington regularly to pay visits to members of Congress, people in the White House and other agencies. And she was persuasive because she was able to articulate a compelling message about Facebook being a real engine of growth for the U.S. economy. And she was also very compelling as a public figure, going into these offices, well known for her brand as being a feminist and a female leader. And a lot of people in Washington wanted to be close to her and associated with her.
Adams: Sandberg has been with Facebook, now Meta, for 14 years now. What do you think her departure signifies about the company more broadly right now?
Kang: I think what it does is it underscores just how much the company is Mark Zuckerberg’s company and always has been. It was only in the last few years that Mark Zuckerberg became very engaged in policy issues. And that’s because Facebook was under so much scrutiny after a series of scandals related to data-privacy abuses, foreign interference on the platform during the 2016 election and the spread of misinformation and toxic content. So because he decided to become more engaged and he decided to restructure the leadership, so that power was more diffuse in the layer underneath him. And her role became less important as a No. 2, per se. There’s an executive who said this really well — there used to be a No. 1 and a No. 2 at Facebook, which was Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Now there’s a No. 1 and many, which is Mark Zuckerberg and several executives.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
Sandberg posted her departure letter, of course, on Facebook, highlighting her development of the ad business and acknowledging the difficulties of running a social media company. She wrote that she continues to believe in Meta’s mission and felt her responsibilities “deeply.”
Kang has also covered Sandberg’s response to controversies involving Facebook, including the company’s response to disinformation campaigns during the 2016 election. That scandal changed both business operations at Facebook and Sandberg’s partnership with Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg posted his own statement about Sandberg’s resignation on his Facebook page, where he talks about what’s next for Meta.
But you can also read this recent article from Wired for more insight into the recent changes to the company’s leadership structure, including details of how Zuckerberg has reorganized Meta, diverting more and more of Sandberg’s responsibilities to other executives who report directly to him.