Bloomberg Businessweek nine years ago this month issued a cover story about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that unquestionably ranks among the most unabashed puff pieces every published in American business journalism. The story didn’t just fawn, it gushed. In Businessweek’s telling Sandberg was the greatest thing to happen to Silicon Valley since Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard began tinkering in a Palo Alto garage.
Have a listen to some of the orchestrated Sandberg accolades slathered throughout the story.
“She’s truly the best operating executive I have ever met in my life.” Matt Cohler, venture capitalist and early Facebook executive.
“I can say very simply I have never seen anyone with her combination of infectious, enthusiastic spirit combined with extraordinary intelligence.” Jim Breyer, then a Facebook director.
And my favorite from founder Mark Zuckerberg: “Without her we would just be incomplete.”
The Businessweek reporter was smitten by Sandberg and she deftly played him for a dupe. Sandberg invited him to witness her lead a staff meeting, and surprise, surprise, she was all nurturing and nice. Cohler and Breyer jumped at the chance to demonstrate their wokeness and declare Sandberg a COO of unrivaled talents, including those of then Apple COO Tim Cook. And then there was Sandberg’s I’m so sensitive “I’ve cried at work,” declaration. Sandberg didn’t succeed as chief of staff for former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who’s infamous for being mercurial and prickly, because she was a shrinking violet. If Sandberg cried at work, they likely were manipulative crocodile tears.
Over the years variations of Businessweek’s Sandberg narrative appeared in virtually every media publication, with Sandberg gracing the covers of business, general interest, and magazines aimed at women. Sandberg turbocharged her superstar status with the 2013 publication of Lean In, a feminist manifesto on how to get ahead in business. By 2017 Sandberg was hailed as a modern day Socrates, with a YouTube channel featuring “Top 24 Inspiring Sheryl Sandberg Quotes on Life, Leadership, and Equality.” (Sample: “It’s the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a very clear path to happiness.”)
But in November 2018 the New York Times revealed Sandberg for who she really was, a ruthless executive ultimately responsible for the “the moral and ethical rot” that permeated Facebook. Sandberg had not only turned a blind eye to Russian use of the site to spread propaganda, but also forced out high-profile executives who wanted to meaningfully address the issue. The Times later revealed that Sandberg ordered an investigation of billionaire and Facebook critic George Soros and was ultimately responsible for a campaign to falsely smear the Holocaust survivor of engaging in anti-Semitism. A Sandberg aide took the fall, signaling to the world she was not someone to share a foxhole with.
As for Sandberg’s nurturing management style, Facebook’s head of security is on record saying she yelled at him for telling Facebook’s board the truth about the company’s egregious security lapses. “Facebook: The Inside Story” published in February reported that Sandberg is overly controlling, obsessed with her public image and prone to yelling at her employees.”
After the Times published its expose, the media promptly turned on Sandberg and civil rights groups demanded that she resign. The Washington Post declared the disgraced executive’s Lean In movement was “officially over. Done. Fin.” The most biting takedown was by African-American and Jewish filmmaker Rebecca Pierce, whose op-ed in the Jewish Forward was headlined: “Sheryl Sandberg Was Always Evil. Your Privilege Made You Love Her.” It’s no mean feat being the subject of both the biggest puff piece and the most personally damning headline ever written.
Sandberg understandably assumed a lower profile after she was unmasked, but she’s quietly reemerged serving up new batches of her “Love Me” Kool-Aid. In addition to promoting a survey by her Lean In organization that indicates women are being hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, Sandberg is also doing a little work for Facebook, promoting the social media company’s dubious program to give $100 million in cash grants and credits to small businesses also impacted by the pandemic.
“These are unprecedented times, maybe the defining time of a century,” Sandberg told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King. “Small businesses all around the world are really struggling. They are worried that their doors are closing, unable to make payroll.”
CBS billed their Sandberg interview as an “exclusive,” but someone forgot to tell the bookers at CNBC where Sandberg appeared a day earlier touting the same $100 million initiative. That’s how Sandberg and her PR minions roll: They dole out promises of “exclusives” in exchange for guarantees of softball questions and subject areas that won’t be broached. Most reporters willingly sully themselves and accept these conditions; ABC News is one of the few organizations known to have refused to play along.
At first blush, $100 million in cash and credits seems like a lot of money. But for a company like Facebook, it’s petty cash. Facebook’s 2019 revenues totaled $71 billion, so $100 million is barely a rounding number. The company’s $5 billion FTC settlement for data privacy abuses was dismissed as a “slap on the wrist” by critics because the penalty was an insignificant amount for Facebook. The company paid $550 million just to make a class action lawsuit in Illinois go away.
Moreover, $100 million is also insignificant for Sandberg. Her accountant could embezzle $100 million from her fortune and she might not even know the money is missing. Sandberg’s estimated net worth is $1.7 billion.
The $100 million figure also is misleading. According to the Wall Street Journal, only $40 million is earmarked for U.S. small businesses, those fortunate enough to be located near the 34 cities where Facebook has operations. Let’s put the $40 million in perspective: Sandberg last year earned $24 million in compensation.
It’s not entirely certain that Facebook’s ads are effective as commonly believed. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the media industry’s measurement watchdog has warned Facebook that it’s in danger of losing accreditation due to deficiencies in how the company reports on the effectiveness of advertising on its products. It was revealed in 2016 that Facebook inflated its video viewing statistics for two years by as much as 80 percent. There’s also a pesky lawsuit alleging Facebook misled advertisers by failing to live up to its promises that display ads would target specific audiences. A judge found sufficient cause to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
It is the function of the COO to make the corporate train run smoothly and safely. So, it’s reasonable to expect that Sandberg should have more pressing things to deal with than a paltry small business PR initiative or the $20 million Facebook giveaway to women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses that she announced yesterday on CNBC. It’s debatable whether Sandberg is, or ever was, a real COO but rather an overly glorified head of marketing and public affairs. COO’s typically are too busy running businesses to cultivate continuous media appearances. Bet you can’t name the COOs of Apple, Google’s consumer hardware business, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Regardless, a recent New York Times story suggested that Sandberg’s days of Leaning In at Facebook are numbered. The Times reported that Zuckerberg has taken a firmer control of the business and cited two unnamed sources who said Sandberg is worried that she’s been pushed aside. A telling sign is that when Zuckerberg met with President Trump and key Congressional legislators, he didn’t take Sandberg with him. Politics, particularly dirty politics, is something Sandberg knows a lot about.
Sandberg played a meaningful role when she joined Facebook four years after its founding, and with the help of former executives she stole from Google and elsewhere was instrumental helping monetize the company’s business. But Facebook has matured and so has Zuckerberg. While the media would declare Sandberg’s departure from Facebook a major loss, it would be the best thing that ever happened to the company since she first walked through the door.