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Be the boss

26 March 2014 By Rob Cox

The time has come for Sheryl Sandberg to lean out of Facebook. Not because the social network’s chief operating officer has done a poor job – quite the contrary. She was the adult supervisor as Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room creation became a $165 billion enterprise. The founder is now doing his own thing, as his latest acquisition shows. For Sandberg, that makes him more of a liability.

Sandberg joined Facebook in its infancy, when Zuckerberg shuffled in flip-flops and sweatpants through the company’s temporary offices off Palo Alto’s University Avenue. The arrival of a proven Google executive brought a professional flourish – and more. Sandberg had also worked as chief of staff to the U.S. Treasury secretary, she held a Harvard MBA, and her resume even included some McKinsey fairy dust and World Bank credibility.

Zuckerberg was prone to erratic decisions, like radically altering Facebook’s privacy policies, at a fragile stage in the firm’s growth. Sandberg melded a corporate approach with Zuckerberg’s hacker culture. That comforted Facebook’s financial backers and allowed the company to sell ads without upsetting users. The largest ever technology initial public offering followed, making Sandberg a billionaire.

The Facebook founder and chief executive may still be unpredictable, but he’s no longer a kid. With voting control of the company, he doesn’t have to listen to his COO – or even his board of directors. The $19 billion purchase of texting service WhatsApp was hatched by Zuckerberg. Wednesday’s $2 billion punt on Oculus VR, a maker of virtual reality headsets, looks a similarly one-man effort. The Oculus purchase could turn out to be visionary, but on mundane strategic and financial logic it’s a head-scratcher.

These deals and other potential Zuckerberg decisions create a risk for Sandberg. She has lately carved a reputation exhorting women to “lean in” and pursue their ambitions, and she has written about the need for women to assert themselves as leaders. “We have to admit something that’s sad but true: men run the world,” she told Barnard graduates three years ago.

The irony is that, despite Sandberg’s impressive career, she has yet to emerge as the boss herself. She has the record, charisma and connections – including with President Barack Obama – to aim higher, even at the U.S. presidency. But first she needs to run something herself. That’s not going to happen at Facebook.


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