Sheryl Sandberg exit interview after leaving Facebook hints at frustrations, plans

Sandberg does not sound her normal self. When we’ve talked before she was almost superhumanly fluent and well-briefed. This conversation is punctuated by long and uncharacteristic pauses.

So, what happened, I ask. Why have you decided to leave?

“Well, it’s not one thing or one day,” she replies. “I’m 14 years into what was going to be a five-year job. A job I took thinking it would last five years that went on …”

There is a long pause. “You and I have talked before about how women face steeper challenges at every stage. Early in their career they are told they shouldn’t go for big jobs if they want to have kids, or they are told that if they do take a big job they won’t stay in it very long because of kids. And there is a lot of age discrimination that hits women at this stage, you know … ageism hits women harder than men.”

Sandberg was famously dubbed middle-aged at the tender age of 35, when she first started at Facebook. There are vanishingly few older female executives in the tech world.

So why leave now, when she was relishing the challenges to come when we last met?

“Well, there’s no clear beginning or end to the advertising business, no beginning or end to the metaverse,” she says, opaquely.

That is, of course, true. But there has been a growing sense that Sandberg was surplus to requirements on the Metaverse project, which is Zuckerberg’s new baby; he is said to be “throwing the farm” at all things virtual reality and her departure consolidates his own power.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerber with his chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg at a conference in July 2021. Credit:Getty

“I am very focused on creating a smooth transition,” Sandberg says firmly. “I’m proud of the team we’ve built. I’m proud of the fact that Mark …” she corrects herself, “… that I was able to make this decision … that I talked to Mark, that we announced it very quickly. And that we are leaving so many strong people in place.

“I am focusing on the transition until autumn and then I am going to take a breath and focus more on women, philanthropy and take a pause and think about what I am going to do next.”

So is this her making peace with her corporate career? Is this the end of the line for her as an executive? Or is she hoping for a next stage?

There is another pause. “I don’t know,” she says. “I would say ‘never say never’. I, of all people, know that you never know what life will bring.”

Some commentators say Sandberg is wise to get out now: the Meta share price has plummeted (Zuckerberg has said it might take 10 years for the Metaverse to make a profit); Facebook’s user numbers have declined for the first time.

Former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has been installed as Zuckerberg’s mouthpiece (a role that used to be Sandberg’s) and factotum of government relations (that also used to be Sandberg’s territory as a former Washington insider). Zuckerberg and Sandberg are also said to have been at odds over content moderation – with him taking a “publish and be damned” attitude, while she was more worried about some of the damaging effects of polarising speech and trolls.

“I would say ‘never say never’. I, of all people, know that you never know what life will bring.”

Sheryl Sandberg

From this conversation, however, I’m left with the impression that personal reasons were a big driver.

“This is a wonderful, wonderful job but not one that leaves time and space for many other things … it really isn’t,” she says, with feeling. When we met before the pandemic she girlishly gushed about how excited she was to have fallen in love again after her former husband, Dave Goldberg, had died suddenly in 2015. She admitted that she had asked her new partner, marketing CEO Tom Bernthal to marry her because “women shouldn’t wait to be asked, we need to get on with planning our lives”.

Next month, Sandberg will finally wed Bernthal after the pandemic forced a long pause in their wedding plans. Their blended family boasts five teenagers; a big shift for any woman.

Sandberg says she proposed to her fiance Tom Bernthal.

Sandberg says she proposed to her fiance Tom Bernthal. Credit:Getty

Let’s not forget that as well as a massive job at Facebook, she wrote Lean In, a 2013 bestselling book that encouraged women to push themselves forward at work, and set up the Lean In Foundation which now runs 60,000 “circles” (to fire up female ambition) in 189 countries.

Not that her message of female empowerment has aged well, coming in for serious flack in the last few years – mainly that it was advice for other wealthy, white women.

In 2018, Michelle Obama told an audience: “It’s not always enough to lean in because that shit doesn’t work all the time”.

Yet Sandberg has always been practical and passionate, attempting to address that criticism around diversity through the work of her foundation. Her maxims – “done is better than perfect”; “don’t leave before you leave” (about women scaling back the moment they decide to have a baby); and “take your seat at the table” – are good mantras for all working women.

Maybe even Sandberg is realising that having it all can also mean doing it all – and there’s a limit to what any of us can take. It’s no coincidence that, post-pandemic, working women are experiencing record levels of burnout.

She also wrote another book, the surprisingly moving Option B, about her grief after Goldberg’s death, which happened in Mexico when he was just 48 and left her the single mother of two children. Meta is certainly not the only tune in her songbook.


“I really want to do more with my foundation; I need to put time and space into helping women,” she says. “This is such a critically important time – the pandemic has led to 40 per cent of women considering quitting their jobs, there are such high rates of burnout. I want to give myself the time and the space to turbocharge my work on all of that. ”

Sandberg and I have spoken often about that urge for a change in midlife; about how, in our 50s, we have reached a new flex point with the overwhelming urge to do something different.

“You and I have talked a lot about life stages and transitions,” Sandberg says, “and the burden that women carry around life stages and children – and of course at this stage in our lives around caring for our parents, too.”

There is another pause. “People keep asking me if there is another reason. But there is no big story …”

Her voice sounds hoarse with emotion. And then maybe we get to the crux of things.

“My mother-in-law passed away; we went to her funeral last week,” she says. “You know, what I mean is that it is definitely a moment – a moment of realising that there are these days and these transitions. That life …” She pauses again. “There isn’t one thing that drove this decision. Just life.”

The Telegraph, London

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