Protocol - A COO becomes a star

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June 5, 2022

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How Sheryl Sandberg became a brand

It’s unusual for chief operating officers to become not just the public face of the company they lead, but also A Personal Brand. But that’s exactly what Sheryl Sandberg did in her 14 years at Facebook, now Meta.

How Sandberg evolved from a little-known, midlevel exec at Google to the leader of a movement has everything to do with the way Facebook itself was structured when she joined the company in 2008. Mark Zuckerberg was focused on the product, and Sandberg was tasked with everything else.

“He’s a very unusual CEO, and so her ability to do what she has done in branding herself from a COO position is in part also reflective of the unusual nature of that company and the fact that she was almost completely responsible for making it profitable,” Rutgers Business School professor Nancy DiTomaso told me.

Before TikTok there were TED talks, and in 2010 Sandberg went viral with her professional advice for women: Lean in, not back. The talk was a jumping off point for the bestselling “Lean In,” which launched discussion groups around the world. While Sandberg had a platform due to her role at Facebook, her work there wasn’t why people were suddenly paying attention.

“There are very few women who achieve that kind of brand strictly because of their corporate roles,” DiTomaso said. “It’s almost always because they have been responsive to or taken it upon themselves to speak out on issues that go beyond their corporate roles.”

There are also very few chief operating officers who captivate mainstream audiences by virtue of the position. The CEO is the public face of the company, and the COO handles internal operations. Zuckerberg made clear that that’s how his new COO, Javier Olivan, will work.

Other star COOs have been influential within their respective industries. Salesforce’s Bret Taylor catapulted from COO to co-CEO within a few years; taking the stage at Dreamforce with Marc Benioff was a clear sign of his ascent. Tim Cook was Steve Jobs’ behind-the-scenes heir apparent as Apple’s COO, forced into the spotlight as Jobs’ health declined. But few operational execs ever achieve the mainstream name recognition that Sheryl Sandberg gained without also getting the CEO title.

And while “Lean In” was flawed — it’s easier to claim a seat at the table when you’re wealthy and have a supportive partner at home — as were Sandberg’s later years at Meta, which were riddled with scandals, management experts say she deserves credit for shining a light on the challenges women face in the workplace.

“The issues that Sandberg put on the table are extremely important and have had an impact, even if there are limitations to it and even if she hasn’t always made the right decisions in regard to other aspects of her life,” DiTomaso said.

Her legacy is now more complicated, but Sandberg was influential as both a COO and as A Brand. Now it’s time for the next generation of women business leaders to take over. The question for them is whether they can pull a Sandberg and get recognition without the CEO title, or whether they’ll need to forge their own path all the way to the top.

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A MESSAGE FROM SAP

For the last 50 years, SAP has worked closely with our customers to solve some of the world’s most intricate problems. We have also seen, and have been a part of, rapid accelerations in technology in response. Across industries, certain paths have emerged to help businesses manage the unexpected challenges over the last few years.

Learn more

​The best of Protocol

Can blockchain help build a non-toxic version of Facebook? — Benjamin Pimentel and Ben Brody

Billionaire mogul Frank McCourt and Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood want to build a decentralized, non-toxic version of Facebook on the blockchain. McCourt and Wood talked with Protocol about what their new approach to social networking would look like, how it could operate and the need for a deeper conversation about the role of technology in society.

6 'nightmare' cloud security flaws were found in Azure in the last year. Does Microsoft have work to do? — Kyle Aspach

Last summer, researchers at cloud security startup Wiz discovered a critical flaw in Microsoft’s Azure. The discovery led to another one. And another one. And another one. It turned out Azure’s vulnerabilities would allow hackers to gain access to thousands of customer environments in one shot. Kyle unpacks how Azure customers should calculate their cloud security risks.

Tech giants made a home in Ghana. Now they’re quiet on its anti-LGBTQ+ bill. — Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu

Tech giants like Twitter and Google have set up shop in recent years in Ghana’s capital, Accra. Now that Ghana is planning to pass legislation that would make it illegal to identify as LGBTQ+ or discuss being a member of the community or an ally on social media, LGBTQ+ advocates are asking those companies to help kill the bill. Kwasi reports on their silence in the face of those calls.

Do businesses really need real-time analytics? Data startups are counting on it. — Kate Kaye

How real time do real-time analytics actually need to be? Data analytics startups like Hazelcast, Rockset and Tecton provide split-second analytics and machine learning to enable financial fraud prevention, dynamic pricing or product recommendations that respond to what users just clicked. But do enterprises actually need that?

Remote work is closing the geographic pay gap — Allison Levitsky

Hiring talent from cheaper cities can still help companies save on payroll, but the geographic wage gap is shrinking. For senior software engineers, the pay gap between the most expensive U.S. cities and the least expensive shrank by two-thirds between 2019 and 2021. Allison explains how the rise of remote work, as well as the growing popularity of geo-neutral pay, are helping close the divide.

NFT lending is becoming a big business, even as prices crash — Tomio Geron

More and more, people are using their Bored Apes as collateral to buy crypto, and large financial institutions are getting involved. Tomio walks through how NFT trading works and what the risks are — both for traders and for the market as a whole.

How Axon's plans for Taser drones blindsided its AI ethics board — Issie Lapowsky

Taser-maker Axon is plowing ahead with plans to develop Taser-equipped drones and pitch them as a solution to school shootings, despite opposition from the company’s AI ethics board. And now some board members think that the very purpose of the board has been put into question.

A MESSAGE FROM SAP

When companies invest in maintaining their “green ledger” with the same commitment they have to their financial ledgers, they will be able to connect their environmental, social, and financial data holistically so they can steer their business towards sustainability. At the end of the day, what gets measured, gets managed.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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