Zuckerberg’s belligerent attitude during the social media giant’s earnings call yesterday suggests that he’s facing a new level of pressure. This would normally be the time for the patented apology that he rolled out whenever times got tough before. No longer. He and the company’s P.R. machine are whirring and clicking with indignation and bile. “My view is that what we’re seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use the leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” Zuckerberg said.
Which brings us back to the C.E.O. job. According to numerous sources, Facebook will move to shift its corporate structure this week, creating a holding company with a benign name and Zuckerberg at the top. (Meta has been suggested, but it might end up being even more anodyne.) As I wrote last week, this is what Google did when it morphed into Alphabet. Moving Zuckerberg out of harm’s way is perhaps the smartest strategy, since he has, like most founders, become the personification of the problem. We need time to forget his shortcomings (many) and rediscover his attributes (also many). A new C.E.O. would run the flagship Facebook division and take all the incoming.
The best move would be to bring in someone who is not part of the suffocating inner circle that Zuckerberg has created over the past decade. This group is made up of people who are in constant agreement. They have bragged to me about their longevity and how they could finish one another’s sentences. Can someone from this gang be counted on to make much-needed changes?
But I doubt Zuckerberg could tolerate a smooth outsider coming in — someone like Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith — who would move to distance himself or herself from the mess and declare that he or she was just there to clean up the wonderful land of Facebook. Instead, I imagine that Zuckerberg would pick someone from the inside whom he already trusts.
One possibility is Adam Bosworth, a longtime executive who was just elevated to chief technology officer. Or Chris Cox, the chief product officer, who is an exceedingly earnest techie who returned to Facebook after leaving for a year. He has a clean persona, despite having been along for most of the ride. One dark horse might be David Marcus, another quieter executive, who has been overseeing Facebook’s financial services products.
The person who I think is unlikely to take over is the current C.O.O., Sheryl Sandberg, who, after a stellar upward trajectory for most of her career, has also become tainted. As Zuckerberg’s longtime No. 2, she’s the Icarus of Facebook. Putting her in the main seat will not fix what’s broken at the company or signal to a now impatient line of regulators that Facebook is ready to change. A restructuring would be an opportunity for her to exit quietly with some grace.
Of course, Zuckerberg could also stand pat and hope for the best, as he has before. Wall Street still loves him. His financial results shine. And his curiously silent board — not one member has made a peep since this whole mess got started — is a willing accomplice to whatever he wants. Most of all, he is a very stubborn man.