Sheryl Sandberg’s departure from Meta, née Facebook, is the kind of supposedly earth-shattering event that executives in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and in Washington have been anticipating—and in some cases hoping for—for years. But it’s also been the sort of event that many were never assured would come to fruition. And it certainly caught everyone I know off guard when Sandberg shared the news this afternoon that she’d be leaving the company amicably after 14 years as C.O.O.
Her story, as it played out in the media, is quite familiar, and defined by two distinct acts. In the first, Sandberg was branded the groundbreaking feminist business icon—the immensely pedigreed Larry Summers protégé and Google wunderkind who helped Mark Zuckerberg and his social media network grow to maturity and achieve unrivaled global influence. In the second, she became the ruthless operator who put profit ahead of principle, and failed to stem an overwhelming tide of controversy despite being obsessed with her public image.
These portrayals were at least partly the product of an obsessive news media that was dazzled by Silicon Valley right up until the point that it wasn’t, and blamed the platform for, among other things, the election of Donald Trump, the erosion of faith in the press, and the cratering of their own advertising businesses. Facebook, with its carnivorous appetite for user data, was the ideal and often apt bogeyman for these evils, and Sandberg, as the supposed adult who was brought in to mature the company’s revenues and image, bore much of the blame. A lot of the criticism was fair, some of it was hyperbolic, and some incredibly complex and nuanced issues were reduced to caricatures, but that’s life at the top.
However, no amount of collective contempt for Sandberg could will her departure into existence. Since 2016, when Facebook’s fortunes took a seemingly irreversible turn, many in the media and analyst community espoused that Sandberg was not long for her job. And yet anyone who was actually inside the room with Mark and Sheryl knew that, despite some very tense moments around the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the relationship between the two executives was always very strong, and that no media mess, or political or personal crisis, was going to change that. The two had the unshakeable dynamic of having shared numerous foxholes together.
Over time, as other executives under her command took on greater power—including global affairs chief Nick Clegg, legal chief Jennifer Newstead and business chief Marne Levine—many assumed that Sandberg’s role was diminishing. This theory was given some oxygen, last fall, when Facebook pivoted to Meta, itself essentially a holding company supporting its various divisions, like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus. At the time, it seemed possible that Zuckerberg was going to take the company in a new direction, and an off-ramp for Sandberg, if she wanted one, could emerge.
Whatever the case, Sandberg’s day has come and the departure, announced this afternoon on Facebook, will inevitably invite all manner of speculation. What I am told by Sandberg herself, as well as several other reliable sources inside Menlo Park, is that there’s no dramatic backstory. Sheryl came, she built, and now she’s ready to move on—to live a more normal life; to get married, which she will do this summer; and to do more work with her foundation. She will also continue to serve on Meta’s board of directors.
“When I took the job, Dave and I talked about me being in my job for five years,” Sandberg told me Wednesday afternoon by phone, referring to her late husband Dave Goldberg. “That was fourteen years ago.” She continued: “This job has been the honor and privilege of a lifetime, but it does not leave a lot of time to do other things. It’s not the most manageable job anyone has had.”
Back in the before-times, when Sandberg was the most famous woman in business, inspiring scores to “lean in,” there was abundant speculation that her next act might be in politics. Would she be appointed Treasury Secretary in a putative Hillary Clinton administration? Of course, that never came to pass. And after taking five years of heat in the press, that option is no longer available. Facebook antagonism, after all, is one of increasingly few bipartisan issues in Washington. Given her expansive net worth, it’s probably more likely that Sandberg will have the most impact in philanthropy and advocacy. Only 52 years old, she has ample opportunity to define a legacy for herself outside of business.
But if there’s any hope for her legacy inside Facebook, it may reside in the team of people who will remain in place after her departure. Over and over again during our discussion, Sandberg talked about her team. “I really believe in the management team we have,” she said, listing off all her various direct reports. “I’m very proud of the team that Mark and I have built.”
The team part bears repeating, especially given the years of speculation about Sandberg having diminished influence. In an era when leadership transitions from Disney all the way down to CNN have proven rocky, Sandberg’s ability to set up a capable team of successors who were promoted well-before her departure is notable. As Zuckerberg himself said on Wednesday, “one of Sheryl’s greatest legacies is the incredible team she has built.”
For more than a decade, Facebook was defined by the partnership between Zuckerberg and Sandberg. And while Sandberg remains on the board, it is now unquestionably Mark’s company again. Whether she likes it or not, one of her most impactful legacies will be the impact she has had on him.
Zaz’s Latest Moves
Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav also made some news earlier today with the decision to remove Toby Emmerich as chairman of the Warner Bros. Picture Group. Toby’s impending departure has been the buzz in Hollywood for some time now. After all, Zaslav has been intensely focused on the theatrical side of the Warner Bros. Discovery business since before he got the job. As a matter of fact, I’m told Zaz and Emmerich had a regularly scheduled Zoom call during the Covid-19 pandemic with other notable Hollywood types like entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman and UTA chairman Jim Berkus. And, of course, Zaz conducted his nearly year-long Hollywood listening tour from the Elizabeth Taylor Suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, meeting with all manner of Hollywood royalty before becoming Hollywood royalty himself.
Now that Zaz runs the company, he even asks to read some of the scripts—out of enthusiasm, I’m told, not to give notes. Of course there’s a lot more to the business than theatrical, but it certainly feels that for Zaslav, it’s the most exciting part of the job. That much was clear when he showed up in Cannes for the Elvis premiere, just before jetting off to St. Tropez for Ari Emanuel’s wedding. Hollywood’s allure hit Zaz hard.
Across the organization, Zaz has a well-known dislike for corporate layers and likes to work directly with his lieutenants. In theatrical, his strategy is basically to carve the unit up into three parts: Warner Bros.-New Line, D.C. and Animation—a structure that would necessarily have left Emmerich with a significantly limited purview. Rather than keep the smaller job, Emmerich left. But he’s not going far: I’m told he’ll take on a production deal with Warner Bros., one that was presumably written into the contract from the beginning, and which Emmerich probably would have been encouraged to take had he not seen the writing on the wall, himself. Whatever the case, Warner Bros.-New Line will now be controlled by former MGM chiefs Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy—with Zaslav hovering above.
And as for the Zaz-Emmerich Zoom relationship, I imagine that will continue in person, with Emmerich still in-house at Warner.