Series on Work-Life Balance – Sheryl Sandberg

If you think that the busy life of Silicon Valley superwoman Sheryl Sandberg would hardly have any time for friends, you are mistaken. Nobody close to the COO of Facebook, is surprised to find her running the company that turned friend into a verb, an action verb. She truly epitomizes someone who has found the balance between work and life, ensuring that one does not prevent you from fully enjoying the other.

Sheryl Sandberg remembers birthdays. She texts people seconds before big presentations (“Smile. Talk into the mic. Good luck”). She has a system for answering all her E-mail. Her late husband, Dave Goldberg, once said so many people stay overnight at their house on such a constant basis that they practically run a small hotel. “There’s no such thing as an intimate dinner for six,” he said. “She’s like, ‘I really think our dining room table is too small.’ ” (It seats fourteen.)

With Sandberg at the table, big gatherings run smoothly—which partly explains how, back in the Clinton administration, when she was 29 and fresh from Harvard Business School and the World Bank, she landed the chief-of-staff job in the Treasury Department. An hour after work on a Thursday evening, she can, without a hitch, welcome 40 women into her home for dinner; just before the first guests arrive, she tucks her two pre-schoolers into bed, disappears for ten minutes, then emerges to answer the door in a sleeveless Calvin Klein dress and black Prada ankle boots.

She calls these informal gatherings—a mix of venture capitalists, tech-company execs, moms, book-club friends, and her sister, Michelle—the Women of Silicon Valley, and they meet roughly once a month to listen to notable speakers pulled from Sandberg’s Rolodex (Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO turned California Senate hopeful; Eve Ensler, playwright and women’s-rights activist). There’s a high-minded purpose behind the get-togethers—female executives tend to become more isolated the higher they climb in the corporate world, and these meetings help correct that. But Emily White, who replaced Sandberg as Google’s chief of online sales when Sandberg moved on to Facebook, thinks the evenings also help her gregarious ex-boss stay in touch with her inner circle. “No question,” Sandberg says. “I see all my friends in one fell swoop. I’d love to have dinner with all of them separately, but I don’t have the time.”

Her friends don’t object to Sandberg’s multitasking, probably because so many of the tasks on her to-do lists involve them. Marne Levine, who worked with Sandberg at Treasury and is now Larry Summers’s chief of staff at the National Economic Council, remembers arriving in Carefree, Arizona, late at night for Sheryl’s wedding weekend. “I had to take a business-school exam the next day,” Levine says, and in order to download the exam and to hand it in at the appointed hour, she needed a private room with Internet access. “Sheryl had a million things to take care of, but she was worried about whether my test-taking conditions were satisfactory. On the wedding calendar, my test was listed as an event!”

In pictures, the 40-year-old Sandberg looks keen, pretty, petite; but snapshots don’t account for her energy face-to-face. Her oldest friends like to point out—and it’s about the meanest thing they’ll say—that as an undergrad back in the late eighties, when she wore leg warmers and blue eye shadow, she founded and ran the Harvard aerobics program almost singlehandedly. She’s quick and relentlessly upbeat, and she likes to toss her head when a subject changes. In intimate conversation, she tends to lean forward; when addressing a room, of four or 40, she rocks back with an almost ironic air of command. “She has an infectious insistence,” one Harvard friend says. “And she has two kids now, and I see the trait in them. Her four-year-old is very much the same: totally happy, but completely insistent. He will negotiate his way to getting a second dessert.”

Her sister, Michelle, a pediatrician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and no slouch in the accomplishment department herself knows, probably better than anyone, what it’s like to be the beneficiary of Sandberg’s focus. “I got very sick when I was pregnant,” she says. “And she called every day. She did not miss a day for nine months. She really sets an example for how people should treat each other. I often aim to do 50 percent of what she does. That’s a pretty lofty goal, actually.”