Discover more from Anchor Change with Katie Harbath
Transitions, Legacies, and Moving On
Change is a process and unique to each individual
For the last few days, I’ve had a lot of people asking me what I think about Sheryl Sandberg deciding to leave Meta/Facebook after 14 years. They want to know why I think she decided now, what her legacy will be and what she might do next.
I do want to speak about how Sheryl has impacted my life and address a few of the areas where I think the narrative is a bit misleading or unfair but I also thought I could share my own story of leaving Facebook that might help give some perspective.
The first time I thought about leaving Facebook was after the 2012 election. Prior to joining the company, my career was mostly on campaigns, which meant a new job every 18 months or so. I wanted to do one of two things. Either get experience working internationally (because I figured if I was going to make myself valuable in corporate life I should know more than just the U.S.) or go to the Republican National Committee to be their chief digital person.
I started pursuing both by talking to folks at the RNC and also working on a proposal/pitch about why I thought we needed to build a global team to work with politicians and governments on using the platform. At the beginning of May 2013, Politico ran a story saying I was one of the top contenders for the RNC job, and a day later I was due to submit my final proposal to Facebook for the international team.
The day that story ran I was in Miami doing training for city officials on how to use Facebook. As I was packing up my stuff at the end of the day I got a message that Sheryl wanted to chat. No more than a few minutes after I sent my cell number my phone rang. I will never forget what Sheryl’s first question was. She said, “What do you want to do?”
I proceeded to tell her the two things I was thinking about and why. She then spent about ten or fifteen minutes telling me why Facebook was the right place to stay and that they would support me in my plans.
Early the next week I was in Menlo Park, given the green light to start building out the team and my life was forever changed. I had never had an organization trust and believe in me the way Facebook did.
The next time I started thinking about leaving Facebook was the summer of 2018 and the world was very different. The election in Mexico had just concluded and I had now been a part of or monitored at least one election in every country around the world that had them. It was my dream job, but the stress was insane. Crisis after crisis kept hitting us like crashing wave after crashing wave. It felt like overnight our work had gone from being a net positive for the company to a huge net negative. At one point I had to put together a proposal of options about how to move forward in working with politicians and governments. One option was to eliminate the team. I would tell my colleagues that I didn’t know if I was digging our grave or building our next mountain to climb.
On top of it all, now that everyone was focused on our work I felt like more and more of it was being taken away from me. Now, in hindsight, I couldn’t have done it all on my own, but that’s how it felt. I had a total breakdown sitting in a Madison bar by myself after I was told I’d no longer be participating in a press call. I had another in front of the Mexico pavilion at Epcot when I was told I couldn’t be the only person to sign an op-ed. I’ll forever be grateful to some very patient and understanding colleagues who tried to help me through those.
It was also during this time when my brain first whispered that maybe I should think about leaving. I remember asking a friend of mine who had recently left Facebook for advice. He said that everyone processes leaving the company at their own pace and in their own time. He also said that for as long as I had been at the company - at that point, it was eight years - it was likely going to take me at least a year to even get to the point of actually leaving.
It took me a bit longer. I couldn’t come to grips with how the company and my role were changing. I held on way too tight, had a few too many meltdowns, and thought I could make it work. I couldn’t and eventually, I was removed from the elections work almost completely.
I spent the beginning of 2020 trying to figure out a new role for myself when COVID hit. So not only didn’t I have my dream job anymore in March of 2020, but my life of constant travel was stopped. I wasn’t about to leave the company in the middle of a pandemic and so I took on some special projects and plotted out my exit with charts, graphs, and lots of support from friends. This included making sure those still on my team would be taken care of.
I cried so much. I cried at how I was going to miss the people at Facebook so much. I mourned the loss of my job and that part of my identity. I questioned if I could ever have the chance to have an impact at this scale again. I made a farewell Spotify playlist with songs about saying goodbye. At times I convinced myself that maybe I still could make it work, only to realize that while I could, it wouldn’t be the same and I wouldn’t be happy.
The hardest and easiest step was saying it out loud to my boss and then to my colleagues. After I did, I felt like a huge boulder had been lifted from my shoulders.
The process of leaving is still happening nearly 15 months later. I think it’ll go on for quite some time. I was talking to someone about how this week two Facebook icons announced their departures/closures: Sheryl and Old Pro (a bar famous amongst FBers in Palo Alto). I said that I feel like I’m mourning the loss of the earlier Facebook times.
Why do I tell you all this?
First, companies and people change over time. Sometimes that change means they are no longer a good fit for one another and that’s ok. It can also be sad, but it doesn’t mean anyone did anything wrong. I wish I had come to grips with that so much sooner.
Second, someone like Sheryl doesn’t wake up one Saturday and decide to leave. I don’t know for a fact but I’m guessing this has and continues to be a long, emotional process for her. There’s never a great time to leave and I’m not reading a ton into her timing other than she had gotten herself to the spot where she could take the leap.
Third, I’ve been a little frustrated by stories saying she was “sidelined” in 2019 because Mark took on more of a role in talking to policymakers. I don’t see it that way. I see it as Mark finally realizing that he needed to be a part of these conversations too as the actual CEO of the company. Did that maybe mean Sheryl was needing to give him some space to do that? Yes. But that isn’t the same as inferring that he was doing it because she wasn’t cutting it anymore.
Fourth, when you do complicated, hard and impactful work your legacy will be complicated. Some things went wrong, some things went well, some things you probably should have responded to differently, and some things people will never know the role you played in making sure bad things didn’t happen. There were definitely times when Sheryl frustrated and disappointed me. There were times when I couldn’t be prouder to be working for her. All these things can be true.
I also think that we are far from knowing exactly how history will judge Sheryl and Mark’s legacy. I can only speak for myself and my legacy when I say that there is no doubt my last five years at the company will be a blemish, but it was also a time when we led the charge on building and investing in things like the civic integrity team, the political and issue ad library and partnerships with organizations such as Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab that I’ll forever be proud of. We were able to do that in large part because Sheryl gave us the resources to do so.
Sheryl deserves to do whatever she wants to do next. I hope we hear from her again and that she finds new ways to have an impact. I hope she eventually gets comfortable enough to reflect on the last 14 years and share what she’s learned from navigating all of these challenges. She’s one of the few who has had to and there’s a lot she can do to help those who will have to in the future.
What I’m Reading
New Yorker: We Know Less About Social Media Than We Think
The Atlantic Op-Ed by Senator Ben Sasse: How to Really Fix Higher Ed
Ronald Reagan Foundation: WESTMINSTER 2.0 WORKING GROUP
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
June 6 (week of): Summit of the Americas, Los Angeles, CA
June 6-10: RightsCon, Online
June 6 - 7: Atlantic Council 360/Open Summit
June 9 - 10: Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
September 13 - 27: UN General Assembly
Sept 20 - High level general debate begins
September 28 - 30: Athens Democracy Forum
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms