Frequently we credit the entrepreneurs that founded successful startups with most or all of the success that those businesses enjoy. While that’s fair in some cases, this simplistic attitude often leaves us ignorant of the most important business people of our time. The perfect example of this is Sheryl Sandberg, who is arguably responsible for the staggering success of Facebook in the past decade.
Over the course of her career, she was an instrumental player in the growth and success of Google, and later Facebook, before founding the Lean In Foundation, through which she facilitates the establishment of women in leadership roles. In that time, she has built up a net worth of $1.61 billion, and been named to the boards of Facebook, The Walt Disney Company, Women for Women International, Center for Global Development, V-Day, and Survey Monkey.
After a short stint as a management consultant, Sandberg took a job as Chief of Staff for US Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers. From there, she moved on in 2001 to join Google, initially with the somewhat vague title of “Business Unit General Manager”. While interviewing for the job, Sandberg famously told Google CEO Eric Schmidt that she had no idea what the scope of the job really was, as Google actually had no business units to manage at the time. However, this did not stop her from using her position to help propel Google through its astronomical growth phase in the early and mid 2000s. Serving as Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations, she grew Google’s Ad and Sales team from 4, to over 4,000 people over the course of 7 years with the company.
In 2007 she met Mark Zuckerberg, who considered her an ideal candidate for COO of Facebook, a role he wasn’t formally recruiting for at the time. She joined the company in March of 2008.
Before Sandberg joined, Facebook was primarily focused on creating an excellent user experience, assuming that profits would result naturally. Sandberg did not agree with this attitude, and set about turning the social media network into the incredibly profitable business that it is today. Upon her arrival she proceeded to convince the business’ leadership to rely on advertising for its revenue, and to begin discreetly displaying ads. Two years later, Facebook became profitable for the first time. Since then, Facebook’s revenue growth has been nearly exponential, going from $1.97 billion USD in 2010, to breaking $40 billion in 2017.
In 2013, Sandberg published her first book, Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, in which she discusses issues surrounding the lack of women in leadership positions in government and business. Its look at workplace sexism, harassment, discrimination, and the more subtle impacts of cultural assumptions about gender roles provides an insightful and much-needed perspective on the ongoing challenges that women face in the professional world.
To begin to actively address the issues she discusses in her book, Sandberg founded the Lean In Foundation, a non profit organisation designed to help women organise into peer groups, called circles, that support each other in the pursuit of professional success in various fields. Currently the Lean In Community has nearly 400,000 members in 157 countries, organised into over 34,000 circles. As an organisation, Leanin.org has worked to address gender equity issues on a broad scale, conducting studies such as the Women in the Workplace Study, which sought to draw attention to the causes of the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.
What we can learn
There is a lot that business owners can take away from Sandberg’s story. While many highly successful entrepreneurs launch non-profits and advocate for social issues, her career blends business success with social activism in a way that we don’t see elsewhere. Moreover, her career shows how business leadership doesn’t always have to mean entrepreneurship or business ownership. Despite having a net worth of over $1.6 billion, Sandberg hasn’t set about launching her own startups. Instead, she joined promising businesses, and set about facilitating their success with extreme prejudice. Her personal success in this speaks for itself.
Business issues are social issues
As a woman in the business world, gender equity is an issue that’s far too obvious and pervasive to ignore, particularly in the tech industry and in leadership. Not only does it poison the company culture in many businesses, it also impairs the innovative potential of a business. Rather than simply pushing through on her own and demanding that others find their own way, Sandberg has launched a movement to change the game for those who come after. She is using her position and her experience to directly change the world.