Sheryl Sandberg and the Death of 'The Deal'

Sheryl Sandberg and the Death of ‘The Deal’

Five years. That’s how long Sheryl Sandberg figured she’d be spending at Facebook, now called Meta, when she took the job as chief operating officer and Mark Zuckerberg’s much-ballyhooed partner in 2008. Enough time to modulate the company’s swaggering culture into something sustainable, build a wildly successful ad business, and set up a policy operation in DC. And to establish herself as an international standard setter for female executives. Then she’d be off—maybe to run for office or to head a giant company like Disney.

But it wasn’t until today, 14 years later, that Sheryl Sandberg announced she is leaving the company. For an ambitious corporate superstar like Sandberg, 14 years at the same post—and not the top one—is an eternity. Most observers pegged her as leaving some time ago, either forced out by the collapse of the company’s reputation in the wake of relentless privacy and content management scandals or simply wearied by having to defend them all the time. But she stuck around so long that even the company’s name changed.

So who can deny her the flowery prose of her 1,529-word farewell post—suitable for a Medium “I’ve got personal news” essay, but loyally posted on the Facebook blue app Feed—where she profusely thanked her colleagues and boasted of all the good things her company did for its users and small business owners. She even cited some random woman in Poland who sells stuffed animals on the platform. Like every other public communication coming from her, it was carefully crafted, to the point where you could hardly tell that the company was among the world’s most castigated. The scathing part of the news came not in her upbeat resignation letter, but in Zuckerberg’s farewell to her.

Sandberg’s tenure would always be shadowed by the deal she made with Zuckerberg when she joined. While she reported to Zuckerberg, the then-23-year-old CEO gave her tremendous autonomy over certain parts of the company—the non-product areas that interested him the least. It made sense for Sandberg to take charge of selling ads. But according to The Deal, her world also included communications, lobbying, policy, and other non-engineering areas. At one point, the chief security officer reported to the general counsel, who reported to Sandberg. When things fell apart after the 2016 election, the troubles in Sheryl’s world were slow to find their way to Zuckerberg. The consequences were disastrous. Zuckerberg later explained to me that he didn’t see The Deal as a mistake, but a necessity. “It would have been impossible, not having the life experience in all these areas, to internalize all the different parts of what running a company could be,” he told me.

In his post today, Zuckerberg gratefully dolloped out appropriate praise for his departing COO. But while Sandberg’s essay painted her tenure in the rosiest tones imaginable, Zuckerberg’s statement was a giant corporate course correction. He proclaimed that Sandberg’s departure was the end of an era—and then he mandated changes to Meta’s organization to make sure nothing like that era will ever happen again. Sandberg’s putative successor, Javier Olivan, will assume “a more traditional COO role,” he wrote. Olivan, who cut his teeth on the company’s runaway growth organization, won’t be running parts of the company on his own, as Sheryl originally did.

Some of that had already been in motion. The first big change came last year when Zuckerberg gave the responsibility for policy and communications to senior VP Nick Clegg, who formerly reported to Sandberg. The chief legal officer, Jennifer Newstead, was also shifted to a Zuckerberg direct report. But today, even as Zuckerberg celebrated Sandberg, he ripped up his organization and put it more directly under his control. The head of HR, Lori Goler, will also report to him as well. That puts Maxine Williams, the chief diversity officer, also in Zuckerberg’s domain.

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