Sheryl Sandberg is leaving Meta now, but she started leaning out years ago

Sheryl Sandberg is leaving Meta after 14 years.
Sheryl Sandberg is leaving Meta after 14 years.
Image: Reuters
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Sheryl Sandberg is leaving Meta after 14 years as the number-two executive at the world’s largest social-media company.

In a note posted to her Facebook page, Sandberg said that she’ll be leaving her post as chief operating officer to focus on her foundation, philanthropic efforts, and family. Meta’s head of growth, Javier Olivan, will step into the role of COO when Sandberg departs this fall.

The news of Sandberg’s departure is a big shakeup for Meta, but those following Sandberg’s career may also say it’s been a long time coming. Read more: “What ever happened to Sheryl Sandberg?” a Quartz profile in 2021.

Sandberg and Meta’s shifting balance of power

Both Meta and Sandberg were dogged by controversy in the years following the 2016 US presidential election, with Sandberg in particular facing blowback over issues including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the spread of misinformation, and Facebook’s failures of oversight with regards to everything from militia members planning the US Capitol riot to posts perpetuating genocide in Myanmar. Most recently, she was in the news for allegedly pressuring the UK paper the Daily Mail to kill stories about an ex-boyfriend. (Meta told Bloomberg that Sandberg’s departure has nothing to do with these latest allegations, and that the company conducted its own investigation that resolved the matter.)

In the wake of these controversies, publications including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have reported that the balance of power shifted within Meta as Zuckerberg assumed some duties he’d previously let Sandberg handle. Citing unnamed Meta employees, the Journal reported in October 2020 that Sandberg had taken to saying, “I serve at the pleasure of Mark and the board.”

That’s not to deny that Sandberg has continued to play an important role at Meta and at Facebook. But it’s certainly true that Zuckerberg has played a more prominent public role in recent years—at least partly because as Meta faced increased scrutiny from US lawmakers, Zuckerberg needed to deal more directly with politicians. Inevitably, that meant that Sandberg receded from the limelight in turn, particularly when compared with her prominence during the early-to-mid 2010s—the Lean In era.

What will Sheryl Sandberg do after leaving Meta?

In the context of years of speculation about Sandberg’s evolving role at Meta, it’s noteworthy that Sandberg went out of her way to emphasize the strength of her partnership with Zuckerberg in her parting note. “In the critical moments of my life, in the highest highs and in the depths of true lows, I have never had to turn to Mark, because he was already there,” she wrote. Zuckerberg was equally effusive in his own post on Sandberg’s departure, and noted that she will remain on the company’s board of directors, “so we can benefit from her wisdom and experience.”

As for what comes next, Sandberg says she has no intention of going into politics or taking on another business role. But in leaving Meta behind, she’s also shaking off the endless controversies that go along with it, and perhaps giving herself new opportunities for reinvention.