NEW YORK – A senior Facebook Inc. executive viewed as a potential successor to Mark Zuckerberg abruptly stepped down on Thursday, signaling that he disagrees with the CEO’s new focus on private messaging at the social-networking giant.
Chris Cox, one of Facebook’s early engineers and a close friend of Zuckerberg, said he decided to leave the company to enable new leadership to pull off the shift in direction. Ten months ago, Cox was promoted to oversee the company’s three main platforms: Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
WhatsApp unit head Chris Daniels also stepped down on Thursday.
The moves together show that Zuckerberg’s stated plan to focus more on private messaging – and less on public sharing – is roiling the company he founded, including a second management shuffle in less than a year.
While Cox, 36, didn’t explicitly state a reason for his departure, he said Facebook’s pivot would benefit from different leadership. In a previous role, Cox oversaw the Facebook News Feed, which will be less prominent under the new structure Zuckerberg is planning.
“This will be a big project and we will need leaders who are excited to see the new direction through,” Cox wrote in a statement. He thanked Zuckerberg for “creating this place, and for the chance to work beside a dear friend for over thirteen years.”
A week ago, Zuckerberg said Facebook plans to offer encrypted messaging across all its major products and allow people to make conversations ephemeral. That would boost privacy and enable conversations held more like in a living room, rather than the public square, and also allow the company to offer more services such as payments and e-commerce within those messaging services.
Doing so, however, requires the company to perfect new ways of making money besides the advertising machine that currently generates 98% of its revenue and pursue other priorities besides driving growth to the existing platforms.
While the outlines are clear, Facebook has offered few details and company officials have acknowledged significant open questions about what the shared messaging platform and business model would look like. Personnel changes announced Thursday indicate Zuckerberg is putting in place a management team that is fully on board with the new direction.
“While it is sad to lose such great people, this also creates opportunities for more great leaders who are energized about the path ahead to take on new and bigger roles,” Zuckerberg said in the Facebook post announcing the moves.
In the wake of Cox’s departure, Fidji Simo has been promoted to oversee the Facebook app, and Will Cathcart will replace Daniels as the head of WhatsApp. Those executives and current Instagram chief Adam Mosseri will report to Zuckerberg directly, while the company’s chief marketing officer, Antonio Lucio, will report to Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Zuckerberg also said Javier Olivan would oversee integrating messaging and direct “where our apps should be more integrated.”
“Whenever there is a shift in strategy, it’s not unusual to see some personnel changes,” said eMarketer senior analyst Jasmine Enberg. “What we do know is that Zuckerberg has a new vision for Facebook that will be more focused on private communication. That’s a big shift for the company, which was built around public sharing.”
Facebook’s leadership was unusually stable for most of the first dozen years or so following its launch from Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm in 2004. Over the past 18 months or so, though, the company has been buffeted by a number of management changes that have one common denominator: a disagreement with Zuckerberg over strategic changes.
The founders of WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook’s hugely successful acquisitions, left the company during 2017 and 2018. WhatsApp’s Brian Acton and Jan Koum disagreed with Zuckerberg’s plans to monetize the messaging service, while Instagram’s Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger grew frustrated over a number of changes Zuckerberg was pushing on the photo-sharing app, which had previously enjoyed considerable autonomy.
Cox, having enjoyed such a long and personal history with Zuckerberg, was viewed as stable lieutenant.
“Chris Cox leaving is depressing” said BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield, adding that “Chris has made it easier for himself to leave by building the teams he has over the years.”
Prior to Cox’s promotion last year, he oversaw the core Facebook product, where growth has begun to slow. Though still producing the overwhelming majority of the company’s revenue, the platform has approached saturation in some markets and seen user activity plateau or decline in others.
Zuckerberg obliquely referenced social-media users’ changing preferences in announcing the company’s pivot to messaging last week. While user-activity metrics are closely held by the company, a series of independent research firms suggest the share of Facebook users who regularly post status updates and photos has been falling, while the numbers who are chatting one-to-one or in small groups is on the rise.
Daniels’s departure, while less high-profile, is also notable. As head of WhatsApp, he oversaw the hugely popular messaging service that many regarded as a template for what Zuckerberg hopes to create across the company. Daniels joined Facebook in 2011 after stints at Microsoft Corp. and Lehman Brothers, and before his WhatsApp assignment he ran Internet.org, the company’s effort to push a free, Facebook-flavored product around the globe.