Sheryl Sandberg’s Message to Vision Masters about Startup Valuation

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operations Officer (COO) of Facebook, and her unique form of leadership is a vital part of the story of the social media company’s success. She obtained her master’s degree in Business Administration from Harvard Business School. She also earned a Bachelor of Art & Science from Harvard University. Both she and Mark Zuckerberg are alumni of Harvard. (Though Mark dropped out after his sophomore year, he received an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Harvard University in 2017.) They both share similar values and the vision for Facebook, and that’s where the similarities end. Sheryl Sandberg’s inherent message to Vision Masters about startup valuation is found near the end of this post.

You’re aware that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook. He started the platform as a tool to help his friends make social connections in college. Today, Facebook is valued at an amazing $1.05 Trillion (as of this morning), the sixth most valuable company in the world by market cap, well ahead of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. So, what does the Sheryl Sandberg success story have to do with Facebook’s meteoric rise to digital greatness and to this amazing valuation?

Zuckerberg’s vision was humble, at first. But he soon realized that his platform could be revolutionary. He was less interested in making money than he was in the social impact of Facebook. But without the impetus to grow, Facebook was in trouble, and Zuckerberg knew it. He needed help, and that’s where Sheryl Sandberg comes in.

His site was multiplying, but Zuckerberg was not equipped to run it at the age of twenty-three. He was invited to a Christmas party put on by a Silicon Valley executive. As he approached the house, he saw Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s vice-president for global sales and operations. Zuckerberg approached her and introduced himself. “We talked by the door for at least an hour,” Zuckerberg recalls.

Sandberg was ready for a new challenge. She and Zuckerberg met regularly over the next month and a half. The following winter, Sandberg met with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, about the need to do something else at the company. He offered her the role of the chief financial officer, which she rejected. She asked about the COO position, but Google already had someone in that role.

Early in 2008, Zuckerberg had decided that Sandberg would be the perfect person to help him grow his social networking company and offered her the job of the chief operating officer. Sandberg began work in March 2008, asking questions and listening. The vice-president of product, Chris Cox, observed, “She walked up to hundreds of Facebook employees, interrupted them and said, ‘I’m Sheryl Sandberg.'”

Sandberg arranged twice-weekly meetings with Zuckerberg on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. Today, in a massive room, her workstation is just a few feet away from his and three senior executives who share connected desks. Over the past 13 years, Sheryl Sandberg’s work has enabled the company to grow by $69 billion by 2019 and increase ad revenue by 27%. As stated earlier, the company, now public, is worth over $One Trillion (based on market capitalization.)  Over the past few years, she has garnered much notoriety for her role in defending the company’s treatment of political speech, but her highest value to the company is in its valuation.

Sheryl Sandberg Success

Thinking about business valuation, Sandberg has focused her efforts on making Facebook more profitable, better serve advertisers, and helping organizations make better use of big data in their efforts to grow and consolidate their brands. She has been recognized in corporate circles worldwide for her ability to bring a fresh and diverse perspective to the decision-making network at Facebook. I call this kind of diversity “leadership diversity.”

Zuckerberg says he’s grateful to Sandberg for “handling the things that I don’t want to.” These include advertising strategy, hiring, firing, management, and political issues. “In other companies, I might have to do that sort of stuff,” he said. “She’s much better at it.”  What Sandberg does is not the only contributor to the company’s total market capitalization, but I would say her efforts are a large part of Facebook’s valuation.  I think Zuckerberg’s statement of her value far understates her value to the company.  To describe her role as “handling the things that I don’t want to” is the same way he might describe an Executive Assistant.  This description does not give her credit for her contribution. This is because it’s hard to imagine Zuckerberg on his own creating a trillion-dollar public company without an Execution Master. For this reason, I believe Sandberg has earned a much larger share of company equity than she currently owns, but no one asked me.

Elsewhere, I’ve pointed out that “leadership diversity” is not just nice to have, but is essential for the success and therefore valuation of a scaling company, may be essential for the long-term success of ANY company. It’s just impossible for one leader to handle the thought process involved in rapid growth at the same time as the thought process needed for efficient operation. Rapid growth requires disruption (rocking the boat, “moving fast and breaking things”) while efficient operation requires stable processes. Rapid growth requires a focus on the long term (Vision), whereas efficient operation requires a sharper focus on the here-and-now, the short term (Execution). The two kinds of leadership are just different, both in thought process and in leadership methods, and actions. It is rare for one person to be masterful at both.

I call the inherently disruptive leader when professionally developed, “Vision Master” and the inherently stabilizing leader when professionally developed “Execution Master.” That’s not to say that each cannot do the job of the other when needed, and many have switched hats at some point in their careers. In fact, I’d venture to say that the best Vision Masters have experience as Execution Masters, so that they know what the other is thinking and know-how to lead them and vice versa. For example, in my own career, I began as a Vision Master, struggled, switched to Execution Master for many decades, then finding my Vision Master nature frustrated, found my way back to that kind of leadership. It’s just that at any given time in a career, a leader specializes in one or the other kind of thought process and leadership.

There’s no difference in the “value” or “importance” of either kind of role. That’s why I refer to both as “masters” when professionally developed. This is true despite the fact that the Vision Master usually gets most of the spotlight. After researching the leadership teams in many successful growth companies, it became apparent that both kinds of leadership were essential and equally valuable. Think Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, combining forces with Gwynne Shotwell, President. The amazing success of SpaceX must be attributed to the “marriage” of both kinds of talents.  (See Ms. Shotwell is another executive who I think deserves a larger share of her company and more credit than she gets.  If you’ll ask Mr. Musk to call me to discuss this, I’d appreciate it.

Much more on this topic, including the specific traits of successful Vision Masters and Execution Masters and many case studies, are found in my book Born to Star, available in eBook form on this website. Please review our previous article on Ms. Sandberg where we explored the topic of gender diversity and the Sheryl Sandberg Success Story itself.

If you’re a Vision Master (or on your way), a key part of your professional mastery is learning how to combine forces with an Execution Master and how to find the right one for you and your vision. I’d go so far as to say that Sheryl Sandberg’s inherent message to Vision Masters is, “If you’re not yet able to select and work side-by-side with an Execution Master like me, you should think of yourself as only a “Vision Master-wannabe.”  You should also cut the future business valuation of your startup by 50% or more.  Get with the program like Zuckerberg did and get yourself an Execution Master.”

Key Takeaways:

  1. Sheryl Sandberg is the archetypal “Execution Master”, even though she has a vision of her own.
  2. Mark Zuckerberg is the archetypal “Vision Master.”
  3. Both kinds of leadership are essential to quickly grow a company and maximize startup valuation.
  4. You should not call yourself a “Master” in either skillset if you can’t work with the other.
  5. People switch from one role to the other during a career, but specialize in one or the other at any one time.
  6. Details of the abilities and methods of each kind of Master, and many examples are found in Born to Star which you can download as a pdf eBook (free at this time) on this site.