When will Sheryl Sandberg leave Facebook?

In my recent blog about Silicon Valley predictions for 2019, I proposed that Sheryl Sandberg will leave Facebook to take the president’s position at Apple, with Jony Ive at the helm as CEO.  This would be a position parallel to that of Brad Smith at Microsoft under tech visionary Satya Nadella. Now here’s a prediction as to when and a full explanation as to why:

The purpose of this blog and value to you is not stock market speculation.  The purpose is to underscore the difference between Vision Masters and Execution Masters.  This, in turn, will suggest how to build a winning team for your own company and impress investors with the implicit message that you know how to make money through innovation.  And we’ll have some fun speculating; you’ll find a 3-dimensional trifecta of benefits comes from reading below:

Microsoft has demonstrated, like Apple in reverse, that a technology company must have a visionary at the helm or it eventually founders.  Execution Masters are essential, but a Vision Master must be at the helm, except possibly during periods of stabilizing after periods of rapid growth. Here’s some evidence: Under non-visionary Execution Master Steve Ballmer, who over-stayed his welcome in my opinion after Bill Gates took on philanthropy, Microsoft stock went sideways during his tenure from January 2000 to February 2014, from about 49 per share to $37 to per share.  But since Vision Master Nadella took over on Feb. 4, 2014, the share price has almost tripled, closing today at about $103.  What a change!

Here’s more evidence:  Apple under Execution Master Tim Cook is now following the same declining path that Microsoft did under Ballmer.  Cook took over Apple on August 24, 2011, with the resignation of Vision Master Steve Jobs shortly before his passing on October 5. Cook was the stability that Apple needed in a difficult time.  Apple’s stock did continue to climb from 94 to 232 under Cook as it reaped the enormous value seeded by Jobs, but since the peak in October 2018, Apple stock has declined quickly to 164 today, wiping out the year’s gains and heading south.  With sales of Apple’s iPhone line stumbling, with new features not triggering new growth, with the loyal elite beginning to jump ship, further declines are likely under Tim Cook’s non-visionary style of leadership.  When will Apple’s board turn the CEO job over to Vision Master Jony Ive (Steve Job’s one-time understudy and design master) and bring on Sheryl Sandberg as wing-woman or similar candidates?  Only time will tell.

I don’t mean to disparage Cook and Ballmer, amazing leaders both of them, for the right time.   Nor do I mean to disparage Sheryl Sandberg, who was featured on the cover of Bloomberg Business Week magazine in May, 2011, with the headline “Everbody Needs a Sheryl Sandberg.”  It might just as well have said “Everybody needs a Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Cook, Steve Ballmer or Gwynne Shotwell.”  Or better yet “Every Vision Master needs an Execution Master.”  In fact, I’d venture to say, great Execution Masters are harder to find, making this class of leader more valuable than Vision Masters.

Here’s more evidence of what’s coming at Facebook, this time speculative.  Events are beginning to move the pieces around the chessboard, even if boards of directors hesitate. Facebook has been led remarkably for more than a decade by a dynamic duo of Vision Master Mark Zuckerberg and Execution Master Sheryl Sandberg.  I’ve written with great admiration about this amazing duo elsewhere, especially the eBook Born to Star.  With these two in charge, company revenue grew from a modest $272 Million in 2008 to $40.653 Billion through the end of 2017, punctuated in 2012 by the largest tech IPO up to that point. It’s been quite a run.

Now Facebook is under increasing pressure to do something about its reputation and stock value.  Its stock has now declined from a peak of 217 to 140 today, despite stock buybacks, and the incessant criticism from many sources (users, advertisers, governments, investors and the press) has got to be impacting the Zuckerberg-Sandberg relationship.  Zuckerberg as the dominant stockholder and CEO is not going anywhere, but a timely change in the C-suite I believe is now needed.  We know that Zuckerberg has quietly asked the aforementioned Brad Smith, Microsoft President, and chief counsel, to dance with him in the Facebook executive suite, and just as politely been refused. This is a clue that pieces are moving on the board.

Is this also a hint that Sandberg should take?  Well if you understand Sandberg, age 49, whose ambitions began as Chief of Staff under Lawrence Summers as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and then Secretary of the Treasury in the (only so far) Clinton administration, you’d have to say “yes.”  She started out as a hero inside the beltway, as she teamed with Summers and Clinton to sustain and increase the federal surplus from 1998 to 2001.  Its hard to give then-young Sandberg personal credit for the federal surplus, but she certainly played a key part. It was uphill from there for Sandberg as both a business leader and social leader, named in the Time Magazine top 100 most influential people.

Sandberg clearly has ambitions in addition to business.  While at Harvard, Sandberg founded a group initiative called ‘Women in Economics and Government.’  According to her, the group was created “to get more women to major in government and economics.” She was already showing up as a leader for social change. While at Google, Sandberg was responsible for sales operations for the company’s consumer products and Google Book Search.  At the same time, she was also instrumental in launching Google.org, the search giant’s philanthropic arm.  As you certainly know, Sheryl Sandberg is the author of the book titled, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”  This bestselling book talks about the reasons there are few women in leadership roles even today. As a result of the Lean In movement, Sheryl Sandberg was named among Time magazine’s most influential women of 2013.  She has also been ranked among the most powerful women in business by Fortune magazine, multiple times.  She has been a woman on the way up.

However, most recently, a chorus of disrespect for Sandberg has emerged.  It sounds like what is in this article.  In addition, not everyone is a fan of Sandberg’s, far from it.  This viewpoint is a minority but not an outlier if you read social media commentary. Then there are those who view her social/political viewpoint as at best superficial and at worst downright harmful. Or this frequently held view expressed by podcaster Katherine Goldstein. All this negativity bubbling under the surface has now broken through and threatens Sandberg’s legacy and her climb.

So let’s ask this question together, would a woman of Sandberg’s political, intellectual, social and business pedigree, and with her extraordinary wealth,, management ability, brains, and charisma, at her age (49), with her over-the-top ambitiousness and resourcefulness, have ambitions for after-Facebook?  If you answer no, you’re entitled to your opinion.  If you answer yes, we agree.

Now answer this question, would a woman with ambitions beyond Facebook and with the political, financial, personal skills, and the willingness to use them, allow herself to be dragged down by controversy, knowing she can’t possibly defeat Zuckerberg in a stockholder vote, or would she seek a most propitious time to leave on her initiative?  What would you do? Remember also, a substantial part of her roughly One Billion fortune is in, you guessed it, Facebook stock, which she can’t sell in large blocks while an officer there.   The answer is I think she’ll look for a good time to exit and not wait to be eased out by Zuckerberg or the Facebook board.  This has nothing to do with right or wrong, or what’s good or bad for Facebook; in her mind, and I think fully rational mind, it’s all about what’s good for her career, her personal fortune, her legacy, and for what she values for the country and the world.  I’m not commenting on Sandberg’s political and social values themselves, only that she has them and I’m letting the world know she is damn serious about them.  This will show up in Sandberg’s next career decision.

It may be too late to launch a political career for the 2020 presidential election, and California has no U.S. Senate seats up for election in 2020.  That’s why I think Sandberg will “lean in” to another step-up in a management position, which would have to be a big step up, and the one that is just begging for her talent is president of Apple Corporation under Vision Master Jony Ive.  Just saying.  A couple of years with him and after turning Apple around (again), winning kudos all around for that, and having deftly ducked controversy at Facebook, she’ll be at an ideal time in life to launch a political career, for which she is so well suited.

Takeaways:

  • The distinction between Vision Master and Execution Master is critically important to the success of innovation
  • Apple needs a new Vision Master and a new Execution Master for a return to glory
  • Jony Ive is the perfect Vision Master for Apple
  • Sheryl Sandberg must move upward from Facebook to save her career and her legacy
  • Without a U.S. Senate seat in California available, I think Apple will hire Sandberg as President under soon-to-be CEO Jony Ive
  • Whether this is right or wrong, this speculation helps clarify the different leadership roles in innovation

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Robert Steven Kramarz

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