Mark Zuckerberg’s second in command at Meta, Sheryl Sandberg announced yesterday afternoon that she will step down from her role as Chief Operating Officer of the tech giant this fall.
Sandberg has been Zuckerberg’s No. 2 at the company since 2008, turning the social media platform into the behemoth with international influence it is today. Joining the pre-IPO startup from her role as a VP of online sales at Google, Sandberg, now 52, developed the business model that made Facebook not just a popular platform but a powerful force around the world.
In recent years, however, Sandberg’s place at the social media giant has been less sure. She shouldered much of the blame for Facebook’s scandals surrounding disinformation, user data, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and reporting by the New York Times found that her relationship with Zuckerberg became less close than it once was. Metrics like employee headcount reporting to each senior executive, as examined by the Wall Street Journal, implied that Sandberg’s role at Meta had been diminished. In her announcement (posted on Facebook, of course), Sandberg seemed to counter that narrative. “Sitting by Mark’s side for these 14 years has been the honor and privilege of a lifetime,” she wrote.
Over her 14-year tenure at Facebook, Sandberg didn’t just build the company’s business model—she redefined what it meant to be a working woman in corporate America. Like it or not, the idea of “leaning in” became part of our culture after the 2013 publication of Sandberg’s memoir-cum-manifesto. While Sandberg’s original advice to women garnered criticism over the years for taking an individualistic rather than systemic approach to solving the problems that hold women back in their careers—and for failing to account for the experiences of women of color and less privileged women—it has had lasting influence.
Sheyl Sandberg will step down as COO of Meta this fall, 14 years after she joined Facebook.Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty ImagesAs she leaves Meta, Sandberg said she plans to focus more on her philanthropic work, which she said “is more important to me than ever given how critical this moment is for women.” (Her philanthropic endeavors include LeanIn.Org and OptionB.org, which are part of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation. Sandberg will also stay on Meta’s board of directors.) In an interview with Fortune editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell and senior writer Phil Wahba yesterday afternoon, Sandberg emphasized that this “moment for women” led her to make the decision to depart, which she said she reached last weekend. “It’s just not a job that leaves room for a lot of other stuff in your life,” Sandberg told Shontell and Wahba. “This is a really important moment for me to be able to do more.” A spokesperson for the executive later said that the likely reversal of Roe v. Wade is part of the “important moment for women” that Sandberg described.
But Sandberg’s work as a voice for women at work hasn’t been unmarked by scandal either. In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that the executive allegedly used her position at Facebook to compel British tabloid the Daily Mail not to publish an article alleging that her then-boyfriend Bobby Kotick, CEO of the troubled Activision Blizzard, had a restraining order filed against him by an ex-girlfriend. A spokesperson for Meta disputed the allegation and said yesterday that it did not impact the timing of Sandberg’s departure. But the situation is hard to forget as Sandberg reprioritizes her thought leadership on behalf of women in her working life.
Regardless, the obvious question for Sandberg is: What comes next? The easy headline is that she’s leaning out—and Sandberg told Shontell and Wahba that she’s not looking for a CEO job. But if we know anything about Sandberg, it’s that she’s ambitious. A turn to politics, perhaps? For now, Sandberg is embracing the uncertain—as she did when she joined a startup led by a 20-something college dropout. “It is time for me to write the next chapter of my life. I am not entirely sure what the future will bring,” she wrote in her Facebook post. “I have learned no one ever is.”