For Sheryl Sandberg, leaving Meta Platforms was only a matter of time.
The announcement of her departure Wednesday may have come out of the blue, but it was also entirely inevitable for the past few years. There’s been too much reporting on how Sandberg’s once critical role in the oversight of Facebook has diminished, as has her superstar status in corporate America. The company’s constant controversies, and her prominent position in many of them, left her so tainted that repairing her reputation was always going to involve exiting the COO job.
It’s unclear at this time, though, what, if anything, is prompting Sandberg to leave at this particular juncture. This being Facebook, it’s hard to shake the possibility that yet another controversy is about to envelop the company, and she’s pulling up stakes now before she becomes even more tarnished. No matter what happens next to Meta, we’ll look back on this moment and wonder whether she saw it coming and that’s what sent her packing.
To ensure it doesn’t look like Sandberg is running away from Meta, she is staying on in her current post until fall and remaining on the board of directors. But it’s more likely she’s leaving now because it’s actually been a relatively quiet period in recent months after years of turbulence.
To have left in the thick of Facebook’s controversies would have cemented a perception she didn’t want: a cause-and-effect dynamic between those headlines and her exit. Waiting until the hubbub from Cambridge Analytica et al. died down is her way of conveying that she’s leaving on her own terms.
On the other hand, even someone whose every move is as carefully cultivated as Sandberg’s can’t achieve perfect timing. She is walking away at a time when a company that once seemed too big to fail is looking more and more mortal as the woebegone economy sinks its teeth into Big Tech.
After reporting a stunning subscriber drop the previous quarter that sent its stock plummeting, Meta is still not showing any signs of recovery. The company will see its first year-over-year decrease in its massive global user base, according to an eMarketer projection earlier this week.
Because the announcement came complete with loving Facebook posts from both Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg that painted a picture of a perfectly harmonious relationship, it's only natural to suspect they're being effusive precisely to paper over the differences that led to their departure. Perhaps Facebook's audacious pivot to focusing on the metaverse earlier this year was not something Sandberg saw as strategically sound.
Zuckerberg and Sandberg have long been touted as a unique dynamic duo, well matched between his visionary leadership and her operational savvy. Their yin-yang has been central to the strategic philosophy of the company for their entire partnership.
Sandberg's second-banana status at Facebook has always been an oddity considering the personal brand she has built for herself through her "Lean In" phenomenon. But the company's many failings in recent years, from the misuse of user data to its perceived unresponsiveness to the proliferation of misinformation on its platform, have damaged her just as much as it has impacted Zuckerberg.
Though she portrays her resignation as her own decision, made to focus on her philanthropic efforts and her personal life (she is getting remarried), we may never know whether she was pushed out. Zuckerberg could certainly have wanted to send a message to Wall Street that there's fresh blood in his inner circle (the stock did perk up Thursday), though if that were his main concern, he would have done well to bring in a prominent new name from outside the company rather than reshuffle his current executive ranks.
Don't believe for a second Sandberg will live out the rest of her days in philanthropic pursuits. She will be in search of the next chapter of her career, one where she can unwrite the bad press of her Facebook years and hope to reclaim her now faded glory.
She may already know where she's going next. While she doesn't have the stature she previously enjoyed, her reputation is such that she could still have her pick of even the most plum perch across any Fortune 500 company. It wouldn't even be the craziest thing if she ended up in entertainment. Given where Netflix is these days, Facebook isn't the only company that would be wise to demonstrate it has recruited a fresh perspective. But my guess is she will stay in tech.
Prior to Facebook's misadventures, Sandberg was on course to write her ticket any way she saw fit, whether that was taking the CEO job at one blue-chip company or going into politics. That has now become more difficult, but there's no doubt she'll prove soon enough that it's far from impossible.