Early Values Shape eBay CEO’s Success

When John Donahoe was an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College, he was a normal student-athlete – bright, focused, and quite involved on campus. He probably did not envision himself as the future CEO of one of America’s biggest corporations. But what he did know was that he had a passion, a drive, and desire to be a leader. Donahoe always felt comfortable in leadership positions, whether it was in his fraternity or leading his teammates on the basketball court as a member of the Big Green basketball team. Before describing his career story, Donahoe wanted to make it clear that many of the goals he has achieved, and hurdles he has had to jump would have been made extremely difficult without his role model, his father.

“My father served as a major influence on my life. At the time, I did not even know that he would serve as such a huge role model to me,” said Donahoe. “But the things I’ve learned from him have been unforgettable. The greatest value I ever emulated from him was his ability to treat everyone the same way. I remember visiting his office when I was young and being astonished by how he knew everyone by name. Whether it was the parking attendant or CEO, he treated everyone the same way.”

Donahoe graduated from Dartmouth in 1982, where he majored in economics and performed at the top of his class. He is now on the Board of Trustees at Dartmouth, and was elected Vice Chair in 2008. Donahoe claims that at Dartmouth, one professor, John Hennessey, had a significant impact on him. Hennessey was a professor of business and ethics at the college, and helped found The Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics.

“Professor Hennessey taught me the key values of self-reflection and how to use my head and heart. He made it clear that ‘I’ was a word that should not be in my vocabulary.”

Donahoe stressed the importance of Dartmouth and how he feels it prepared him for the business environment he is in today.

“The Dartmouth education creates an outstanding foundation for people who want to lead,” he said. “With a number of different perspectives, you learn how to work and dialogue with others and are forced to interact with so many different people. This has really helped me in the position I am today as CEO of eBay, where half of the 27,000 people who work for us are out of the country. Dartmouth made me comfortable and taught me how to bring people together to achieve common goals.”

Within a year after graduating, Donahoe joined the Boston consulting firm Bain & Company. Working as an Associate Consultant, he was immediately placed into leadership roles. Donahoe was given tasks in charge of recruiting and summer internship plans. He did this on top of attending Stanford Business School and achieving an MBA. Tom Tierney, a Bain & Company executive at the time who later served as CEO, served as a mentor to the young Donahoe.

“Mr. Tierney was a master of constructive feedback. After meetings, he would not just tell me I did a good job. He would tell me many things I could improve and work on. Even though it was not necessarily what I wanted to hear at times, I knew he did it because he cared. His advice made me very stronger, making sure the job I was doing was not just ‘good,’ but ‘great.’”

At Bain, Donahoe worked with the former CEO of Bain Capital and current Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. He said that Romney was one of the most capable executives and leaders he has ever met.
“Mitt is so smart, objective, and shows a strong ability to listen well. I think it is outstanding that he has been able to switch to the campaign mode as a politician, because it is certainly not an easy transition coming from the executive role in business.”

Donahoe’s success grew at a young age after his role as an associate consultant. At age 31, Tierney placed Donahoe in charge of the San Francisco office for Bain & Company. Several years later, in 1999, Donahoe became Bain’s Worldwide CEO, where he directed the company’s 30 offices and 3,000 employees. He served the position for 6 years, until 2005.

Donahoe then went to eBay in February of the same year, leading as President of eBay Marketplaces, which is responsible for or all elements of eBay’s global ecommerce businesses.

He rose to President and CEO of eBay in March of 2008, when icon Meg Whitman stepped down after 10 years of leadership. He made clear his missions at eBay.

“My objective coming in was to create an opportunity for people to make livelihood out of our innovations and make eBay an impact on the world. To be able to globally connect people and customers with whom we care about is a very rewarding thing.”

Donahoe’s job, however, was not made so easy in his first 2-3 years. Several months after he stepped in as CEO, the United States encountered the start of an ongoing recession. Donahoe was faced with serious adversity as the recession put eBay into trouble. But perhaps Donahoe can thank the traits he built early on in his life in finding a way to tackle this problem.

“It is times like this where you have to learn how to trust your instincts, and really learn something about yourself,” Donahoe said. “In times of adversity and uncertainty, you have to find inner strength to some extent, and build character to find out what you’re really made of. The experiences I had prior to being CEO of eBay helped me get through this.”

Donahoe is obviously making the right moves. In January, eBay completed its acquisition of brands4friends, Germany’s largest online shopping club for fashion and lifestyle. More recently, eBay reported a 254 percent increase in profits for the company’s fourth quarter, credited to its sale of VOIP service Skype to Microsoft.

It is important to note that John Donahoe is not just a CEO. Outside of the office, he is a father of four, andhas been blessed with twenty-seven years of marriage. Donahoe’s wife, Dr. Eileen Donahoe, works on the other side of the political spectrum, in President Obama’s administration. Dr. Donahoe graduated from Dartmouth in 1981 with a BA in American Studies. In November 2009, she was appointed by President Obama as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Previously, she served as a former affiliate at Center for International Security and Cooperation of Stanford University.

“Almost all of my time outside of work has been spent watching my children grow up,” said Donahoe. “One of my favorite things to do was watch and coach them in sports. I loved every second of it. In my personal time, I still enjoy basketball, but no longer play, but I do golf on occasion and enjoy reading.”

Donahoe has many words of encouragement for aspiring business leaders. When asked about advice for college students who have aspirations to someday hopefully be in a position that he is in, Donahoe replied, “You really have to take your own growth and development seriously. Being successful takes a lifelong commitment to learning. You always need to have the urge to get better. The worst thing you can do is hide behind your own strength.”

Donahoe made it clear that failure can sometimes be a good thing. “You can always learn from your failures. I have faced much adversity and humility, especially during the recession. There were hate videos of me, and there were people who believed I made wrong decisions and was not leading the company in the right direction. But I fought up to the challenge. Never let failure scare you off, because you will be surprised about how much character you can build in a time of difficulty,” Donahoe claimed.

Donahoe looks forward to the future of his company. With the rapid pace of change and innovation in the Internet space, Donahoe admits that his job is tiring, but exciting. “With innovations such as the iPad, iPhone, smartphones, etc. technology is constantly changing. With eBay mobile apps providing a dominant force in the business, I believe eBay is very well positioned to help consumers. At eBay Inc., we have our assets assembled, and are geared in helping this new technology thrive.”

Donahoe is again up for the challenge. He will take those core values, built through his incredible experience, and lead eBay into the future.