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Sheryl Sandberg: Is She the Real Brains at Facebook?

After the Instagram megadeal and "hoodiegate," Facebook investors may be taking comfort from the COO's leadership.

The hit movie The Social Network depicted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a genius among slackers.  However, it's hard not to wonder whether COO Sheryl Sandberg isn't providing the business experience and (let's go ahead and say it) basic maturity that's kept Facebook from crashing and burning.

Before you shake your head in disbelief, consider that there are, and have been, plenty of "second in commands" in who have actually been running the show. Steve Ballmer, for instance, was "officially" No. 2 to Bill Gates for years, even after Gates was spending most of his time on his foundation. And Tim Cook was, in effect, running Apple when Jobs' health problems forced his absence.

Big Zuckerberg Blunders

With that in mind, let's look at Zuckerberg. Over the past year or so, he's:

These last two items have the flavor of desperation about them–as if Zuckerberg is determined to cling onto the geek cowboy image popularized in the movie. In any case, none of these pranks has helped Facebook achieve its goals, unless you believe the oft-disproven saw that "any publicity is good publicity."

By contrast, consider Sandberg.

Her resume prior to Facebook includes being VP of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, during the heyday of that firm's growth, as well as serving as as chief of staff for the United States Department of the Treasury.

And she's been COO of Facebook since March 2008, before Facebook saw really explosive growth.

Most recently, Sandberg proved both her maturity as an executive and her sense of security in her position by revealing to the world that she doesn't feel the need to work insane work hours--and, in fact, leaves work at 5:30 to be with her family.

Making Things Run

From an outside perspective, it's hard not to guess that, as far as day-to-day business goes, Sandberg is probably running the show.  And that's not surprising, because that's the role that a COO often plays–even more so when the CEO is, well, kinda flaky.

According to a July 2011 profile of Sandberg in The New Yorker, she was responsible for determining Facebook's ad-centric business model--and was reputedly the first executive to sound out Wall Street on the possibility of an IPO. In other words, while Zuckerberg has been slaying goats, she's been building Facebook from a slacker hobby into a real business.

Of course, by all accounts Zuckerberg has a major hand in technical development of Facebook. However, despite the company's huge growth, Zuckerberg has made some glaring blunders, most notably bungling user privacy and failing to integrate well with smartphones and tablets.

Facebook's growth notwithstanding, I'll bet that most big investors would be less enthusiastic about the company if Sandberg weren't there to ameliorate Zuckerberg's obvious immaturity.  Furthermore, once the company goes public, one wonders how long investors will tolerate Zuckerberg's hijinks when there's a clear alternative available–one who has already shepherded Facebook (and possibly Zuckerberg as well) into the current market position.

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Last updated: May 15, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.




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