Confidence Woman

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is on a mission to change the balance of power. Why she just might pull it off

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Peter Bohler for TIME

Strategy meeting Sandberg with team members

Combined with her efficiency is her emotional quotient (EQ), an uncanny grasp of how people feel. In a meeting to discuss the purchase of a Web-design company—a process known as acqui-hiring, in which the deal is mainly aimed at bringing in new talent—Sandberg reminds her team that the firm’s founder is about to have a birthday and wants to get the deal done before the big day. “I think that birthday helps us,” she says. As Zuckerberg puts it, “She’s unique in that she has an extremely high IQ and EQ, and it’s just really rare to get that in any single person.”

Sandberg doesn’t like to call what she does management. It seems too clinical. She has the gift of making others feel their contribution is significant. (Two people told me they were the first to take Sandberg’s kids to a farm.) She believes in crying in the office and devotes a chapter in her book to honest communication at work. “We argue pretty vehemently,” says Cox. “One thing I appreciate about Sheryl—when it’s about to get heated, we’ll call each other. We don’t raise our voices. We have a different tone.”

Meetings are the vertebrae of any executive’s day, and Sandberg runs a brisk one. In the pre-Sandberg era, they didn’t always start on time. And there weren’t always notes. “Sheryl’s able to get a diverse set of people to get to a decisive position very quickly,” says Mike Schroepfer, VP of engineering. “She’s famously impatient.” She’s also practical, making sure people aren’t meeting on an empty stomach. “After Sheryl came to Facebook, I got a lot less hungry,” recalls Zuckerberg.

The Sandberg Way

After running thousands of meetings and hiring, directly or indirectly, thousands of people, Sandberg feels she’s in a position to comment about the way women work. And here’s what she’s noticed: it’s not their fault exactly, but they aren’t pursuing their careers in the most efficient way. Inefficiency is abhorrent to Sandberg. She has a sign in her conference room that reads, “Ruthlessly Prioritize”.

Of course, we can’t all be Sheryl Sandberg. In fact, none of us can be Sheryl Sandberg. To understand why, it helps to know how she got to be who she is.

“I was raised [to believe] that going into business was a bad thing,” says the oldest daughter of Joel and Adele Sandberg, an ophthalmologist and teacher from Florida. “You were supposed to be a doctor or work for the government or a nonprofit.” (Both her siblings went into medicine.) Sandberg thought she was going to be a lawyer. In sixth grade she took second place in a Florida-wide oratory contest, even though all the other speakers were in high school. That she couldn’t see over the lectern without a step stool didn’t diminish the impact of her speech about the folktale of the little red hen and the importance of everyone’s doing their bit for America.

It was Sandberg’s parents who first demonstrated the power of the network. Joel is the efficient, competitive one, Adele the passionate, nurturing one. In the ’70s they were activists for Soviet Jews who were trying to emigrate to Israel. If one of the refuseniks, as they were known, was arrested or sent to a labor camp, the community reached out to a guy in London. He then called a bunch of supporters all over the world, including Adele Sandberg, and they activated a telegram program and called their local politicians. By 1987, partly as a result of pressure from Western nations and networks like the Sandbergs’, Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. “My biggest concern for my kids was that they grow up to be a mensch,” says Adele. “If she ended up turning into a snob, I would not be proud of her.”

After topping her public school and getting her undergraduate degree at Harvard, Sandberg was accepted into its law school. Despite the thriving aerobics class she’d started on campus—where she says she learned to smile even when she didn’t mean it—she went to work for the World Bank for her former professor Larry Summers. He had been her thesis adviser (she wrote about the economics of spousal abuse) and says, “I noticed her because she was the best student out of 75 or 80 in my undergraduate class.” After two years of international aid work, partly on Summers’ advice, Sandberg decided to skip law and do an M.B.A.

(MORE: The Pay Gap Is Not as Bad as You (and Sheryl Sandberg) Think)

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