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The third leadership strand is perhaps the hardest to internalize, but Whitman has: Don't assume you know more than the marketplace or community--because you don't. Unlike Wall Street bond traders who try to outguess and outsmart the market, Whitman listens and learns to formulate the right questions; then she influences others on her team so they can come up with the right answers. "You are constantly taking in new information," says Whitman, "constantly changing the prism through which you view your business." Adds Tierney: "CEO s today have to be receivers rather than transmitters. It's a discovery process, not a dictatorial process."
Learning by doing. Whitman has demonstrated leadership through learning by making several trips to China, listening and trying to understand how the country actually works. Her time on the ground was crucial. China's 100 million Internet users are second only to those in the United States.
Whitman also uses her board of directors as a think tank, a resource to help identify key questions that affect eBay's fortunes. And she invites her senior staff to board meetings to make sure they are full participants.
Because eBay is so new, Whitman's education often happens at the same time a market unfolds and reveals itself. "Sometimes," says Bill Cobb, president of eBay North America, "it feels like we're hurtling through space." When eBay users wanted to buy and sell cars online, Whitman and her team worried about risk, trust, and safety. "There's a big difference between a $40 collectible and a $40,000 car," says Whitman. "We had a fair amount of debate on this. There were 100 reasons not to do it."
But they did it. Recognizing that the community knows what it wants, the company created a separate website to see how this marketplace would sort itself out. It wasn't clean or simple at first, and Whitman and her managers constantly revised the site to solve problems as they came up. "It would have been tough to anticipate all the issues, so we went to market and revved on the fly," explains Whitman. "Sometimes you are delighted, sometimes you are surprised, and sometimes you are horrified. . . . What's the worst thing that can happen? You fail."
In this case, eBay hardly failed. More than 1 million cars and more than 50 million parts and accessories have been sold on the company's website since 2000.
Whitman's moves don't always win acclaim. After eBay acquired the Internet-telephone company Skype (which has yet to show a profit) in September for $2.6 billion, eBay's stock price sagged, and commentators called the deal overpriced, "pretty goofy," and "kind of dumb." Yet the shares soon righted themselves, as the market appears to be giving Whitman the benefit of the doubt based on her track record.
Sitting still. Vulnerability, exposure, and a willingness to just go with the flow are essential components of modern corporate leadership. But so, too, is a willingness to embrace inaction--even when inertia is pulling in the opposite direction. Several years ago, for instance, Whitman was sitting with a fully priced offer from Yahoo! that would have integrated eBay into its Internet cousin. Despite the attractive financial proposal, the CEO listened hard and recognized that the eBay community of users would not be served well by a merger. She broke off negotiations, and eBay and its buyers and sellers preserved their independent and sometimes rambunctious network.
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