Sheryl Sandberg announced on Wednesday that she will step down as COO of Meta this fall. Her message announcing the move revealed a lot about he working relationship with Mark Zuckerberg, especially in the early days of Facebook. And it provides a blueprint for effective collaboration that every leader can learn from.
In her 14 years at Facebook she has served as Mark Zuckerberg’s right hand, helped polish his image and his relationships with the corporate world, authored the sometimes controversial bestseller Lean In encouraging women to commit to their careers, and built out Facebook’s ad business, its main source of revenue. And Sandberg, who was older than Zuckerberg, more media-savvy, and much more comfortable in the spotlight, often served as Facebook’s public face.
But like many great collaborations, the Zuckerberg-Sandberg partnership may have started to fray as times and circumstances changed. Though Facebook is famously close-mouthed about its internal dealings, word leaked out that Zuckerberg was displeased with Sandberg’s handling of accusations that the platform had been used to influence the 2016 presidential election, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal that followed.
More Mark, less Sheryl.
In recent years, Zuckerberg has taken on the role of publicly representing Facebook more and more often–after what appears to be some extensive and very effective training in public speaking and dealing with the media. Some of Sandberg’s former responsibilities have been parceled out to others, leading the New York Times to report that she had been “effectivelysidelined.” The Zuckerberg made a very public commitment to the Metaverse and created Meta as Facebook’s parent company–thus steering the organization away from Sandberg’s field of expertise.
It seems safe to say there’s been some trouble in paradise in the past few years. But none of that was evident in Sandberg’s announcement of her coming departure which, of course, she made via her Facebook feed. Instead, she talked about how she only ever thought she would spend five years at Facebook when Zuckerberg first recruited her away from Google. She said she wanted to focus more on philanthropy, and on her Lean In initiative for connecting women and empowering them in the workplace. She also said she wanted to focus her attention on her upcoming marriage and the combined family it would create. It was the class act we have all come to expect from Sandberg.
“Sitting by Mark’s side for these 14 years has been the honor and privilege of a lifetime,” she wrote, and he responded in the comments, “I’m going to miss working alongside you every day, but grateful to have you as a lifelong friend.”
Sandberg’s round rules for working together.
Some of the most intriguing information in Sandberg’s post is about how she and Zuckerberg first met, and the lengthy discussions they had about Facebook before he decided to offer her the job and she decided to take it. Before starting the job, she made three requests that were deceptively simple and showed enormous emotional intelligence. She wanted to sit near Zuckerberg at work, she wanted to meet one-on-one with him every week, and she wanted him to tell her anytime he thought she screwed up. He asked for the same candor in return.
I’m willing to bet that this agreement is the secret behind their powerhouse collaboration that lasted more than a decade. It’s not always possible, particularly during a pandemic, but if you want to work effectively with someone, having them in physical proximity can make a very big difference. So can regular one-on-one meetings and especially a commitment to honest conversation about any areas where you might disagree.
The approach was so effective for Sandberg that when summer rolled around just a few months after he hired her, Zuckerberg decided it was time to take his first extended vacation from Facebook and went traveling for a month, leaving her in charge. “It seemed crazy–but it was a display of trust I have never forgotten,” Sandberg wrote.
It’s a model every entrepreneur should consider following when hiring a second-in-command, and a commitment every executive should consider asking for before taking on a leadership position. Making sure there’s frequent communication, and that the communication is always honest, may be the biggest key to success when two leaders work together.