It’s not too late for Sheryl Sandberg to rehabilitate her image

Sheryl Sandberg in 2015.
Sheryl Sandberg in 2015.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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As Sheryl Sandberg steps down from Meta after 14 years as one of the most high-powered women in business, speculation is rampant over what she’ll do next.

Sandberg herself says her immediate plans are to focus on her foundation, philanthropy (particularly around women’s issues), and her newly expanded family. But rumors persist that she may attempt to pivot to politics sometime in the future, or perhaps assume a CEO role at another big company.

Such speculation is colored, however, by Sandberg’s complicated legacy—both as the number-two at a company that’s been charged with everything from major privacy violations to ruining democracy, and as the author of the feminist manifesto Lean In, which prompted the corporate world to discuss gender and sexism at a time when the topics were still largely taboo, but also came under harsh criticism for its blind spots on issues like race and class.

What will Sheryl Sandberg do next?

In this context, some are ready to write off Sandberg’s future career prospects. “The cache she had is gone,” one anonymous political operative told Insider, suggesting the chances of Sandberg’s either getting elected to public office or being appointed to a high-level role were slim in the wake of the many Facebook-turned-Meta controversies to which she’s been linked.

Rumors of Sandberg’s dwindling influence at Meta have also served to undermine her aura of power. Bloomberg reports that inside the company over the past few years, “speculation mostly ceased about what role Sandberg would choose to ascend to in the wider world. Instead, some wondered why she stayed on at Meta, even as she spent less time in top strategy meetings and making public appearances.”

There’s no doubt Sandberg’s image has taken a hit along with her employer’s. But just as Facebook rebranded as Meta, there’s still very much a path forward for Sandberg to rebrand herself if she chooses to pursue more opportunities in either politics or business.

“Her public reputation has diminished, but I don’t think that is necessarily a permanent state of affairs,” says Dorie Clark, a strategy consultant who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “She’s in her early 50s and has many years to make an additional contribution and change the narrative.”

How Meta shaped Sheryl Sandberg’s public image

For one thing, leaving Meta will give Sandberg the opportunity to distance herself from Meta’s ongoing scandals. While the extent of Sandberg’s responsibility for Facebook’s ills hasn’t always been clear, she’s inevitably accountable as Mark Zuckerberg’s chief operating officer.

“Her association with Big Tech was a huge plus for her years ago, when it was viewed as an unfettered force for good that was broadly beloved,” says Clark. But as public sentiment toward Silicon Valley in general and Meta in particular has shifted, “her association with Facebook has become a bit of an albatross around her neck.” While Sandberg will continue on at Meta as a board member, she’ll presumably no longer be the public face of scandals as they hit.

Moreover, Sandberg is planning to focus next on philanthropy—a move that’s generally quite helpful when it comes to image rehabilitation. Clark points to how Bill Gates’ charitable initiatives helped him reform the greedy-monopolist persona he’d cultivated in the 1990s, or how Angelina Jolie went from being best known for breaking up Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston to being recognized as a human rights ambassador. Since Sandberg’s foundation is already well-established, Clark says, it will be hard for critics to argue that she’s just using it to launder her reputation.

Meanwhile, the argument that Sandberg’s history with Meta is simply too checkered to render her fit for politics doesn’t hold up in the light of the many other politicians with scandals attached to their name.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In legacy

As for the legacy of Lean In, it’s true that Sandberg came under scathing criticism for some of the book’s shortcomings. But she also publicly copped to issues like overlooking the difficulties faced by single mothers. The Lean In organization, meanwhile, has increasingly worked to focus on intersectionality and the importance of systemic (as opposed to individual) change in pushing for gender equality.

Meanwhile, Sandberg is still far more outspoken than many other women in business about issues like abortion rights. As Clark notes: “There are not that many women in the highest ranks of American executive power, and there’s even fewer women who have used their platform and bully pulpit to speak out around feminist issues the way that she has.”

No escaping the gender lens

There’s plenty of valid criticism of Sandberg’s leadership at Meta. But it’s also true that she’s faced her share of gendered backlash. “People are excited to see a woman fail in a way that they’re not excited to see a man fail,” says Kim Scott, the Radical Candor author who previously worked with Sandberg at Google.

Gender also may be contributing to the narrative that Sandberg won’t be able to parlay her ample business experience and political savvy into another act. Scott, for her part, says personal brands are hardly fixed. What matters, she says, is  “[what] Sheryl does next. People notice action.”