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eBay’s software whiz lets others lead

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management,Profiles in Leadership

Pierre Omidyar, eBay’s founder, always maintained high standards as a software engineer. But early in his career, he learned that he couldn’t impose his perfectionism on others.

Instead of demanding that colleagues meet the ideal that he wanted, Omidyar realized if he got them to perform at 80% of his high expectations, he’d get good results. With five team members, he figured that “five times 80% is much larger than 100% of me.”

With this approach, he leveraged others to build eBay. He stepped back and allowed them to contribute their strengths.

About six months after Omidyar launched eBay in 1995, he began getting a rash of customer complaints. Users of eBay kept bickering with each other and expecting Omidyar to referee their disputes. To address the situation, he posted a letter on eBay’s website in which he encouraged users to write online feedback—good and bad—about others. Giving them a public forum to share input helped him disengage while creating a more open online community.

This positive experience carried over to Omidyar’s leadership. He decided to stop telling his managers what to do. Letting them exercise more autonomy made them more effective.

Detaching from daily operations worked well for Omidyar, especially after he hired Meg Whitman as CEO in 1998. When eBay crashed for 22 hours, Whitman and her management team called every one of eBay’s top 10,000 sellers to apologize. Reaching out to so many key customers built trust and made them even more wedded to eBay.

— Adapted from “How I Did It,” Issie Lapowsky.

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