It’s time to reckon with the possibility that perhaps the most high-profile No. 2 executive on the planet is no longer a safe bet to remain on the job in the long term.
Change Sheryl Sandberg’s Relationship Status with Facebook to ‘It’s Complicated’
A May 16 New York Times profile of CEO Mark Zuckerberg strongly suggests his COO, Sheryl Sandberg, has been marginalized as he reasserts control over the company, which has been repeatedly rocked in recent years by major controversies. The article suggests Sandberg has become increasingly concerned she is being sidelined as Zuckerberg takes a more active role in some of the areas she previously oversaw on her own, and as he handles more of the public-facing speechmaking that was once left to her. The company makes abundantly clear its position that there’s been no material change in Sandberg’s status.
A dynamic-duo breakup seems a renewed possibility
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 this company for their entire partnership. But that was then, and this is now: Zuckerberg has signaled a very clear shift in his approach to management style, one that calls for him to take a direct oversight of company operations that he lacked for much of in his reign to date. Navigating that could mean turning Sandberg into the latest high-profile casualty of a power consolidation that has ousted the founding leaders at acquisitions Instagram and WhatsApp, as well as other chief lieutenants like Chris Cox.
Sandberg is sui generis
No one occupies a place in the corporate-America firmament like Sandberg. Her 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 Facebook’s many failings in recent years, from misuse of user data to its perceived unresponsiveness to the proliferation of misinformation on its platform, have tarnished her just as much as it has impacted Zuckerberg.
She could have her picks of top jobs across corporate America; she’s even flirted with running for president of the country. She may need to blaze a new path to earn a redemption that may never come as long as she stays at Facebook.
Something had to change for Facebook management
The growing list of executives who have been elbowed aside by Zuckerberg during this phase of his career might seem cause for concern. But it’s also distinctly possible that Facebook could benefit from increased attention from Zuckerberg and Zuckerberg alone. Looking back on the turbulent 2016-19 period, it’s clear whatever the reality was of the company’s management dynamics, it wasn’t conducive to strong corporate governance.
A departure would not destabilize Facebook
For all its struggles amid persistent controversies, Facebook has held up remarkably well as a profit engine. The pandemic will certainly be a significant dent in its digital advertising revenues in the next 12-24 months, but most tech giants will hold up comparatively well to the rest of the Fortune 500 in a recession environment. If there’s a leadership transition, it’s not going to rock the boat much at a big ship like a Facebook.