The cover of the Oct. 28 issue of Fortune features a look at “The Real Story” behind Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, and in the magazine’s profile, Facebook board member Marc Andreessen discusses how “Sheryl” has become a job title.
While she’s one-of-a-kind, some find Sandberg so compelling that she is now being hailed as a model. Conventional wisdom in the tech world these days says that companies do best when led by their founders — an idea that harks back to the success of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. It wasn’t always the case. In the 1990s, the bias shifted. Investors, reluctant to trust young, techie founders with no managerial skills, insisted on hiring professional CEOs. Valleyites called it adult supervision. The formula worked in many cases — eBay and Yahoo, for example — but it also left many startups adrift once the single-minded product focus and vision of their founders were diluted. Marc Andreessen, a Facebook board member and co-founder of venture-capital powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz, says the (Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark) Zuckerberg-Sandberg model solves that problem: It leaves the entrepreneur as the ultimate authority, ensuring that the company stays true to its founding vision, and marries it with superlative business execution. As a result, he says, “Her name has become a job title. Every company we work with wants ‘a Sheryl.’ ” Then he adds, “I keep explaining to people that we haven’t yet figured out how to clone her.”
The story also mentioned Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and how it is perceived within the company:
“Lean In has done a lot more for Facebook than Facebook has done for Lean In,” Zuckerberg recently told employees.
How Sandberg, amid all her Facebook activities, managed to write Lean In, orchestrate flashy book tours on three continents, launch a foundation, and become a ubiquitous spokesperson for the ambitions of women remains baffling to most people. Sensitive to how it would be perceived inside and outside Facebook, Sandberg co-wrote the book with Nell Scovell, a professional writer, during evenings and weekends. She clustered book tours around a few blocks of vacation days — while still answering Facebook emails between events — and set up LeanIn.org as a separate organization in Palo Alto with its own staff. While there is some overlap — communications are often coordinated, and Facebook has lent facilities like video-recording studios to LeanIn.org — the two remain separate. With her trademark efficiency, Sandberg has mastered the art of combining Facebook and Lean In business — meeting with advertisers during her book tour in Germany or with government officials while in Beijing, for example.
Facebook executives say she hasn’t missed a beat. Privately, some Facebook employees say Lean In was distracting and took much of Sandberg’s time, but only during a brief period in the run-up to its publication. No one has defended her activities more fiercely than Zuckerberg. When an employee asked whether anyone at Facebook was free to write a book, he described Sandberg as “superhuman” and said that anyone who, like Sandberg, could write a book without dropping any balls had his permission.
Lean In has turned Sandberg into even more of an international celebrity. But the impact of the book has also been profound inside Facebook, helping with recruiting and retention of women engineers and executives. Most female candidates “reference how attractive Sheryl is to them,” says Emily White, who heads business operations for Instagram, the photo-sharing company Facebook acquired for $1 billion. “It’s almost always in the conversation.” This year, partly as a result of the book, Facebook had a record-breaking number of female interns, says Lori Goler, the head of human resources, though she refused to reveal specific numbers.