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Social, networked executive finds perfect company

February 3, 2012; ft.com ; Social, networked executive finds perfect company; by April Dembosky. Sheryl Sandberg likes Counting Crows and the Dixie Chicks, When Harry Met Sally and Toy Story 3, running, and “playing with my children” according to her Facebook page. The online profile also lists her resumé of professional posts, from the US Treasury Department, to Google, to her current job as the chief operating officer at Facebook. The site does not have a section in its profile page for a person to highlight the companies she was responsible for preparing and leading to a multibillion-dollar initial public offering, nor a place to suggest a post-IPO net worth of about $2bn. When Facebook this week declared its intentions to sell stock in the public markets, attention landed on Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s 27-year old chief executive, and his own declarations of how Facebook’s “hackers” were toiling to not only connect people, but to shape better businesses, better governments, a better world.

But the company’s financial success, which he said serves to enable its social mission, traces directly to Ms Sandberg, 42. After helping to build Google’s search advertising business from the ground up and seeing it through its landmark IPO to $16.6bn in annual sales in 2007, Sandberg went to Facebook in 2008 where she took the concept of social advertising from a fumbling idea to a viable business model that generated $3.7bn in revenues last year. While the reclusive and geeky founder led the charge in attracting 845m people to the site, the financial growth at Facebook is seen as being rooted in Ms Sandberg’s ability to attract top business talent to the company, in particular from her technology alma mater. “I came because of Sheryl,” is a popular refrain among the string of Google employees who decamped to Facebook in recent years, often picking up the same title they held at the search engine. Her reception from incumbent engineers was less enthusiastic, but she soon carved a place for herself. Part of her success, insiders say, stems from her blatant defiance of the conventional wisdom that managers should not be personal with their employees. Though not beloved by all, people close to Ms Sandberg describe her as “warm” and “genuine” as often as “skilled”. She listens, her fans say; she helps; she rallies people round her cause and pushes projects to completion. Put together, and set against the grand philosophies Mr Zuckerberg has about his company, Facebook was a logical place for her to land. “It’s a technological manifestation of who Sheryl is,” said Clara Shih, chief executive of Hearsay Social, a social media start-up, and a protégé of Ms Sandberg’s. “She’s the ultimate social networker.” Her history with Facebook began at a Christmas party in 2007, when she met Mr Zuckerberg and stood talking with him for an hour. One of the company’s key investors had just chastised him for the disastrous handling of Facebook’s Beacon – an application that published users’ purchases from other websites without their consent – and urged him to hire a new chief operating officer.

Mr Zuckerberg had aptly negotiated funding contracts so that investors could never force him out of his chief executive role. But analysts believed it was clear he did not have the skills, nor the inclination, to run the human resources and business operations of the company. He was 23 at the time. Instead, he found an “adult” who would do those things, but as a partner who shared his vision, not a replacement. Ms Sandberg was similarly looking for a new opportunity, where she would have much more leadership responsibility. In March 2008, she started work at Facebook, where she led one session after another with employees to settle on a business concept that everyone could rally around. Eventually, she was meeting advertising heads at companies from Starbucks to Walmart, explaining to them the benefits of social advertising and targeting messages to people based on specific interests and social connections. As tensions rose around the company’s privacy policies, she took the lead in Washington, lobbying on behalf of the company. Born in Washington, she grew up in Miami, Florida where she excelled in school, and worked at times in her father’s ophthalmology office and as an aerobics instructor – “silver leggings, the leg warmers ... I have done a lot to hide all those pictures,” she told Jesse Draper, the host of The Valley Girl Show. She went on to Harvard as an undergraduate then for her MBA. She worked for her thesis adviser, Lawrence Summers, first at the World Bank, then as his chief of staff when he was Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary. From there, she went to Google. Throughout her career, she has been a vocal champion for several social causes, but none more than the advancement of women in the workplace. She calls the small representation of women – 15 per cent – in top corporate jobs and board seats a “stalled revolution.” On her mission to increase that number from the bottom up, she encourages women in speeches and one-on-one to “sit at the table” and assert themselves, and to “lean forward” reaching for new challenges and promotions, particularly if they are thinking about having a baby. Then they have something attractive to return to when the urge to stay home with the baby hits. At Facebook she was behind the company’s four-month paid parental-leave policy and its designated “expectant mother” parking spaces, choicely positioned near the office entrance. More than that, she conducts intimate pep talks with women that remind them to maintain their ambition. “Keep your foot on the gas pedal,” she says. With Facebook barrelling toward the largest internet stock listing in history, and other corporate and governmental leaders just waiting to offer her next opportunity, she’s setting an example by keeping her hand on the jet throttle. The writer is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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