Sheryl Sandberg's lessons in leaderhip: Debbie Klein reviews one of Cannes' star turns

Sheryl Sandberg speaking at Cannes (photo by Getty Images)

Storytelling. Authenticity. Honesty. Let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of buzzwords at Cannes, and whilst some messages are worth repeating, you can see why it’s incredibly easy to get bogged down with the same old predictable comments, and why some are still very cynical about the whole thing.

There were buzzwords aplenty in one of Wednesday’s biggest Cannes Lions talks, with Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. She talked about Facebook’s power of “bringing people’s stories to life", which can “give real identity” and positively change the world.

She also described Facebook’s relationship with advertising agencies as hugely important “because of the storytelling".

But beneath the hyperbole there were some real nuggets from Sandberg, who must be admired for a drive, desire and work ethic like no other. She is someone who believes in and cares about her brand with a passion.

In particular, Sandberg had a unique position to give an intimate point of view on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and what it is that makes him such a great leader. She has after all worked with him for seven years, seeing him and Facebook grow.

“I think people originally underestimated him,” Sandberg admitted, “because he’s so shy.” So what is it that Zuckerberg had that proved the doubters wrong (other than a brilliant product)? Sandberg selected three specific qualities that highlight precisely how to be a great leader in any field: Be a great listener (Zuckerberg is, apparently, “one of the best listeners in the world”), believe in the power of others, and be relentlessly optimistic.

Those are three character traits that are important in any business, but it was still interesting to see Sandberg single these out when talking about the real secrets of Zuckerberg’s success. Well, he’s certainly not done badly out of it…

The other big part of the session was when the spotlight turned on Facebook’s future, and its recent major acquisitions. Sandberg was particularly excited about Oculus Rift, which she said made her “look ridiculous” but provided a huge gaming opportunity for Facebook, which will help it further its mission of bringing “life to life”.

I saw for myself some of the features of Oculus Rift when out at SXSW in March, and I can certainly back up Sandberg’s impression – both in terms of the opportunity it provides and the questionable fashion statement!

Sandberg also mentioned WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in February. As well as vowing to never put ads into WhatsApp’s messaging, she picked out personal messaging as a whole as one of Facebook’s most important tools.

With $19bn spent on acquiring WhatsApp, you can’t say Facebook isn't putting money where its mouth is. And with someone like Sandberg at the helm, you wouldn’t bet against it succeeding. It will be interesting to see what Facebook and Sandberg in particular turns their hand to next.

Debbie Klein is the chief executive of Engine UK and was recently named The Drum’s Woman of the Year at the SheSays Awards.

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