She’s a millionaire manager and financial guru but also an activist, philanthropist and a role model for millions of women. These are dark times for Facebook, accused of having violated its users’ privacy in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but Sandberg remains the most trusted figure at the US social network and the one most loved by the press.
With a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA from Harvard (for which she got top marks), Sandberg isn’t yet 50 and has worked in the world’s most important chambers of power. At the World Bank she was a researcher; at the White House, Treasury chief of staff under the Clinton administration; she then moved to Silicon Valley, first becoming vice-president of Google’s Global Online Sales and Operations and then, in 2008, Chief Operating Officer at Zuckerberg's social network. It was here that she literally turned the business around.
Before she came on board, everyone was, “Primarily interested in building a really cool site; profits, they assumed, would follow,” tells the New Yorker, explaining that within just a few months of her joining the company, the leadership at Facebook, “agreed to rely on advertising, with the ads discreetly presented.”
Success lies in civil engagement
To put it plainly, she is at the centre of the social network's financial success, the one who managed to transform it into a money-making machine. Hers is, though, the business model that opened the gates to Cambridge Analytica, criticised in the international press. Yet, as the Guardian has pointed out, she has stayed silent and kept her reputation intact. Her Facebook and Instagram profiles are a monument to the Keep Calm and Carry On philosophy: there has been the odd sign of solidarity with Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress, a couple of posts about the measures the company intends to take to make its users’ data protection more secure. But, above all and as ever, she puts civic and social engagement at centre stage. This is because, unlike so many top managers and financial gurus, Sandberg never forgets to show her sensibility to the human aspect - and for many, that is precisely the secret to her success.
For me, Facebook looked like it was going to solve the problem of the invisible victim.
“I'd worked on leprosy and malaria at the World Bank and asked myself the question: why do we let 2 million children die every year around the world for not having clean water? Because they're faceless and nameless,” she declared in an interview with the Guardian. “For me, Facebook looked like it was going to solve the problem of the invisible victim.”
Not bad as an explanation as to why she took the job. And Sandberg even admits to “playing hardball” when it came to negotiating her contract.
“Mark Zuckerburg made me an offer that I thought was fair,” she wrote in her autobiographical book, Lean Inadding that she really wanted the job. “My husband kept telling me to negotiate (...) Right before I was about to say yes, my exasperated brother-in-law blurted out: ‘Damn it, Sheryl! Why are you going to make less than any man would make to do exactly same job?’ My brother-in-law didn't know the details of my deal. His point was simply that no man at my level would consider taking the first offer. This was motivating. I went back to Mark and said that I couldn't accept, but I prefaced it by telling him: ‘Of course you realise that you're hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.’” That, she says, is how she pushed the negotiations and got much more than was being offered at the beginning.
This anecdote has become Sandberg's battle cry. She has been an activist for equal rights for years, the face and supporter of several equal pay awareness campaigns because, she says, one of the main reasons women earn less is because they're afraid to ask.
If the adjective “feminist” has made it back into today's most liberal political agendas - from those of Barack Obama to Justin Trudeau’s - this woman, her composed manner and her ever-perfect hair has played an enormous role, in ways that are far distant to those of the women who burned their bras in the streets. Feminism, for her, means believing that “men and women should have equal opportunity,” so, of course, she is a feminist. She says feminism is not a bad word.
Privacy is overrated
Sandberg’s negotiations with Zuckerberg are not the only anecdote she has shared. In fact, she has built her support by treading the fine line between transparency and privacy - sharing private events - and succeeding in the difficult task of coming across as available but not OTT. Unlike Mr Zuck.
“Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” a senator asked Zuckerberg during a hearing before the US Congress, to highlight the fine line between the right to privacy and the need to share. The 30-year-old multimillionaire was timid and gave an embarrassed, “No”. In fact, despite having conquered Wall Street, Zuckerberg can’t ditch his “geek” aura and always seems a little awkward when speaking in public, despite countless hours training with the world’s top public speaking experts. His number two is precisely his opposite. Able to win over any crowd, Sandberg has made sharing her private life her distinctive brand, the winning card that transformed her from a very capable but low-profile manager into a veritable Silicon Valley icon and a charismatic ambassador.
In her exceedingly famous 2010 TED Talk she presented another example of her experience, explaining why there is such a scarce number of women in the upper echelons of companies and giving an account of the difficulties that women aspiring to leadership roles face on a daily basis.
“A couple of years ago, I was in New York, and I was pitching a deal. Two hours in, there kind of needs to be that bio break, and everyone stands up. The partner running the meeting starts looking really embarrassed. And I realised he doesn't know where the women's room is in his office,” she said. So I start looking around for moving boxes, figuring they just moved in, but I don't see any. And so I said: "Did you just move into this office?” And he said, "No, we've been here about a year." And I said, "Are you telling me that I am the only woman to have pitched a deal in this office in a year?” And he looked at me, and he said, "Yeah. Or maybe you're the only one who had to go to the bathroom."
The TED Talk went viral and from it was born Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, her autobiographical book about the difficulties of building a prosperous career in an industry that, she says, is governed by American frat rules.
She says she was told not to publish it because people would see her as that boring woman complaining about women’s rights. The risk, they told her, was that by talking about the difficulties she faced in managing a family and a career would make her seem vulnerable. But, if there’s one thing Sandberg knows how to do, it’s knowing when to accept advice and when, instead, to ignore it.
Lean In has become a global best-seller, putting into writing the worries of millions of women worldwide. The reader can immediately identify with it and it bridges the abyssal gap between the readers’ daily lives and the life of this millionaire top dog who could afford an infinite team of nannies and babysitters.
Sandberg’s secret is, after all, making her own daily life seem incredibly close to ours: the story of her discovering her children had head lice is very well-known. She could see her daughter’s itching becoming “frantic”, so she began to examine her and, to her horror, realised what the problem was. They were on a private jet - eBay’s Managing Director had invited them on board to travel to a conference. Having to tell the whole plane that there was a lice emergency on board would, she says, have been a “fatal embarrassment”.
Building the best place to work in the world
Sandberg isn’t just loved by Facebook users and the press, though. She’s also the emblem of wellbeing in the workplace. She describes Facebook’s structure as horizontal, explaining that everyone has their own well-defined roles but that they are all open to discussing things together. This is why not even she has her own office, but a large space that she shares with colleagues. “Done is better than perfect” is written in huge letters on the wall, encouraging everyone not to fear making mistakes nor to always search for utter perfection.
Hers is a managerial style that puts pragmatism and people’s wellbeing first. This to the extent that Facebook employees are the ones who love her best. The company was recently awarded Glassdoor's Best Place to Work and it’s largely her input that achieved this.
She’s the champion of mediation, and it was she who pushed for an environment that favours a work-life balance, offering smart-working, the chance to work remotely, and increased maternity and paternity leave as well as more time off after bereavement.
The latter is a subject that Sandberg broaches in her second book, Option B, when she raises the deep trauma she and her children experienced upon her husband’s sudden death in 2015.
I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void (...). Or you can try to find meaning.
After weeks of silence on her social media accounts, Sandberg, in a moving post on Facebook, reflected: “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give into the (...) emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void.”
It was a post that, Time Magazine has written, made Sandberg seem more human. It garnered 75 thousand comments and pushed her to write a new autobiographical book that describes her fight in more detail. This book, too, is full of anecdotes that show Sandberg’s more vulnerable side and it instantly became a best-seller. She tells of her first day back in the office when she fell asleep in a meeting, but says her personal experience helped her make improvements at Facebook. She felt terrible, she says, but explains that, when she thought she couldn't do her job it was Zuckerberg that told her he was pleased she’d come back. “I think you made a good point in that meeting,” he said, giving her the support she needed to feel safer. She believes that everything that has happened to her has helped change her perspective. Now, when someone is going through difficult personal issues, she doesn’t simply lighten their workload but first asks what they want to do - sometimes working through it is the best way.
Caryn Marooney has witnessed this first hand, after she was diagnosed with a tumour shortly after being promoted to head of Global Communications. Following Sandberg’s example, she continued in that position. Marooney has said that Sandberg’s vulnerability was an inspiration to her. She explains that sharing her condition with her colleagues helped her get to know them better. “It helped people share things with me in a way that helped me understand how to do the job better and faster.” Marooney says there’s no need to be scared of being vulnerable, because all of us are. It was Sandberg that taught her how precious sharing is. And, in Sheryl Sandberg’s eyes, sometimes privacy really is overrated.