Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said she would leave the social media service after 14 years, marking the departure of one of the most high-profile female executives in the U.S. at a time of tumult for the company.
But Sandberg’s tenure at Facebook was marked by repeated political controversies that tarnished her brand even as she tried to distance herself from them. That includes Russian operatives sowing disinformation on the service during the 2016 election, as well as the 2018 scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a Trump-affiliated consultancy that siphoned data from millions of Facebook users inappropriately. Sandberg, who ran the company’s policy division during these incidents, also publicly downplayed Facebook’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — a stance that was viewed as a mistake after reports revealed that extensive organizing for the Capitol riots took place on Facebook’s services.
“I am not entirely sure what the future will bring — I have learned no one ever is,” Sandberg wrote on the social media site. “But I know it will include focusing more on my foundation and philanthropic work, which is more important to me than ever given how critical this moment is for women.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Sandberg said she told Zuckerberg she would be stepping down over the weekend.
“Look, it’s a hard job. I’m not going to claim any differently,” she said. “But it really was about finding some space and time in my life like do more for women and do more with my foundation.”
Now Sandberg will face the task of reinventing herself as separate from Facebook and its controversies — as the company goes through its own rebranding. Facebook changed its name to Meta last year and is attempting a pivot to becoming a hardware company, a journey that executives have said will take at least a decade, and that some industry experts are skeptical will even happen. The company’s stock price has fallen 44 percent since the beginning of the year following poor earnings results and news that it lost users for the first time in its 18-year history. Many executives who did not want to join in on building the next chapter have already left the company, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, over the past year.
Sandberg said in addition to focusing on her philanthropy, she would get remarried this summer to marketing executive Tom Bernthal. Her previous husband, Silicon Valley executive Dave Goldberg, died in 2015. She said she would continue to serve on the company’s board of directors.
Few at Facebook were surprised by her departure, which has been a source of speculation for years. Over the past year, Facebook expanded the roles of some senior leaders so that they would report directly to Zuckerberg. That included elevating a key deputy, Marne Levine, to a newly created role of chief business officer, and elevating Nick Clegg to president for global affairs.
Javier Olivan, a close friend and longtime colleague of Zuckerberg, will take on the role of chief operating officer, but the job’s purview would be more limited in scope compared to Sandberg, Zuckerberg said in his own Facebook post on Wednesday. The CEO said he didn’t plan to replace the full responsibilities Sandberg held into one position.
Sandberg for years was among Zuckerberg’s most trusted deputies, and people spoke of the two informally as “co-CEOs.” Sandberg was an executive at Google when she was brought in to help build Facebook’s business. In his blog post, Zuckerberg credited her with “architecting” the company’s booming ad business, hiring great people, and “teaching me how to run a company.” He also described their close personal relationship.
“I’m not sure people really appreciate how long her run was,” said Nu Wexler, a former Facebook communications manager. “Fourteen years at a social media company is rare for a non-founder, especially at a place that spends every single day in the spotlight.”
Sandberg leaves as Facebook’s business is under threat from younger social media apps, particularly the short-form video service TikTok, which the company is copying with its own product, Reels. Facebook reported this year that it lost daily users for the first time — falling by about a half-million users in the last three months of 2021, prompting the company’s stock to plummet.
Facebook is also trying to remake itself as a seller of virtual and augmented reality-powered devices. Its October name change to Meta signaled that the company plans to stake its future on creating the so-called Metaverse — a term used to describe immersive virtual environments that are accessed by virtual and augmented reality. Facebook envisions that people will want to work, play and connect in these new digital realms.
Sandberg had long been the company’s lead promoter in Washington, standing in for Zuckerberg as a former senior adviser in the Clinton administration. She enjoyed warm relationships with Democrats during the Obama administration. In 2015, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) posted a picture with Sandberg in her Capitol Hill office on Facebook, thanking her “for inspiring women across the world to believe in themselves.”
Then-California attorney general Kamala D. Harris posed side by side with Sandberg at an Internet safety event at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters. In fall 2016, Washington insiders widely speculated that Hillary Clinton would name her to the Cabinet in a role such as treasury secretary if she won the presidency.
But those political connections rapidly deteriorated under the Trump administration, when Republicans’ surprise rise to power left Sandberg with few powerful relationships in Washington. Sandberg and other Facebook executives struggled to contain the political fallout following revelations of Russian interference on the social network and the subsequent Cambridge Analytica revelations.
Sandberg also alienated Democrats and civil rights groups. By September 2018, Sandberg was once again on Capitol Hill — but this time in the hot seat to answer lawmakers’ questions about the company’s missteps and its preparations for the midterm elections. Harris, by this point a senator, took a distinctly different posture toward Sandberg, grilling the executive over the company’s record on hate speech.
Rashad Robinson, the president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said Sandberg was more open to working with civil rights leaders than other top tech executives. He had numerous meetings and calls with Sandberg, during which the advocacy group made some gains. They pushed the company to publicly release a scathing audit of its handling of civil rights, as well as to hire a chief diversity officer.
But Sandberg also made promises the company couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver on, or defended Zuckerberg and the company through “many indefensible actions,” Robinson said.
“Facebook continues to be a vehicle that does a lot of harm to our democracy, to civil rights, to so much about our way of life,” he said. “Sheryl Sandberg and the brand that she built is at the center of protecting the company through a lot of those actions and a lot of that behavior.”
Sandberg’s reputation became so damaged in the Democratic and civil rights circles she once courted that some leaders, including Pelosi, would not take calls from Facebook lobbyists or executives, The Post previously reported.
As Sandberg’s reputation fell, Clegg played a bigger role in promoting Facebook’s Metaverse ambitions politically, while Sandberg focused on talking to foreign heads of state, said people familiar with her activities, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them.
Sandberg, who sought for years to position herself as a champion for women in the workplace, authored the best-selling book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” in which she encouraged women to promote themselves in corporate workplaces.
In recent months, Sandberg focused her attention even more fully on being a public champion of small businesses, regularly talking with entrepreneurs around the world about how they were adapting during the pandemic.
Sandberg was also often the face of the company’s criticism of Apple’s new privacy changes which aimed to curtail targeted advertising. Sandberg and other Facebook executives argued that the new changes would hurt small businesses’ ability to tailor their small marketing budgets toward their customers.
“I honestly thought Sheryl would be the last man standing,” said a former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I thought if Sheryl were going to leave, she would have left during all the Trump controversies.”