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Conversations in Corporation: eBay’s Green Team in Progress

| Tuesday May 12th, 2009 | 0 Comments

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John Donahoe, the CEO of eBay, stood underneath a pop-up tent on a rainy Friday in San Jose. He had on running shoes, old jeans, and wore an eBay Green Team tee over a long-sleeved, button-up shirt. For being the head of one of the most well-known names in Silicon Valley, he was refreshingly approachable and accessible. Employees came up to him, introduced themselves, and took the opportunity to speak with the man they had probably never even seen walking through the office hallways before. “The best thing about the Green Team,” he started, “is that it happened in a very eBay way.”

The crowd of a couple hundred listening to Donahoe and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed was mostly comprised of eBay employees—tired, wet, and cheerful after a green space beautification project sponsored by the company’s Green Team just miles away from the its corporate headquarters.

What started off as a scant 40 members, volunteering their time because they had a passion for sustainability, the Green Team has now exploded to over 100,000 strong after it opened up to community members (eBay sellers and customers) a little over than two months ago.

“The founding of eBay,” Donahoe said in an interview, “always had a socially conscious outlook, though it was never emphasized or articulated.” Donahoe also made a point to emphasize how inherently green eBay is. Its core offering, the eBay online marketplace, is about returning used goods to the market, supplanting the creation of new goods with large carbon footprints and removing products from the waste cycle. “We didn’t want to be the guys talking about it,” he said, referring to the company’s social values. “We want to be the guys doing it.”

You Can’t Play in the Major Leagues Without Having Lots of Failures
Donahoe was recently featured in the NY Times’ Corner Office, a series on CEOs of major corporations. Among many insights into his leadership and business methods, one particular analogy stood out. As most sports analogies go, it was at once cliche and pithy, offering a great way of not only how Donahoe would like to convey eBay, but also a great treatise on innovation and taking chances.

Referring to a review he once reviewed from a former manager, Donahoe’s the biggest problem was that he always wanted to bat .900—he always wanted to hit home runs. And 9 times out of 10, it worked, catapulting him to head of one of the largest consulting firms in the world prior to coming to eBay. That 10th time, however, crippled him. Or rather, the fear of failing that 10th time crippled him.

“The best hitter in Major League Baseball,” Donahoe said, citing what his manager had told him, “can strike out 6 times out of 10 and still be the greatest hitter of all time.”

That review helped Donahoe realize that all you need to do is just get up to the batter’s box and swing. “All you have to do is hit a couple singles, a couple doubles, maybe a homerun out of every 10 at-bats, and you’re going to be the best hitter or the best business leader around.”

Donahoe took this philosophy with him to eBay, where he became its chief executive last year, and it has trickled down throughout the organization.

To the Ground Floor, Please
Bence Oliver is one of the founding members of eBay’s Green Team. He was at the infamous pizza party that started it all. At the time, the members of the nascent green team had all these lofty ideas about how they could make their jobs, their company, and their lives more sustainable. They didn’t really know what they could get done, but according to Oliver, they all said: “Okay. Let’s give it a shot. Let’s explore it.”

This is what Donahoe meant when he said the Green Team happened in a very eBay way: From the ground up. A couple people taking a swing. “Out of the box thinking is baked into the eBay mentality,” said Oliver. “The company has a spirit of entrepreneurialism built into it.”

But the members of Green Team—the initial volunteer venture has now evolved into a more formal entity—have enjoyed one particular luxury: The support from their higher-ups. Financially, legally, and from the C-suite. “Seeing the executive level’s interest,” Oliver said, “gives you a jolt of adrenaline.”

But the power to support, and the power to inspire, only takes you so far. How do you actually get something done?

Lessons Learned
When asked about the role as one of the world’s biggest brand names that eBay can play in setting an example of social and environmental stewardship for other corporations, Donahoe came back to the idea of doing it, not just talking about it. Nonetheless, speaking to both Donahoe and Oliver, certain phrases and sentiments began to resonate as they discussed what green meant to eBay.

Impact. Metrics. Benchmarks. Benefits. Track record.

The discourse of green is firmly rooted in the language of business. But it’s also the way eBay has been able to produce results. It was an early adopter of the USPS’ Cradle-to-Cradle shipping process, an attempt to address one of the more unsustainable aspects of eBay’s business model. The company has been carbon neutral since 2007. And that is largely due to data and metrics that were produced to document the company’s carbon impact and the benefits carbon reductions would contribute.

“Our carbon footprint is something I [now] take for granted,” Oliver chuckled. Though, he went on to suggest the type of power that type of accomplishment can command. “It’s a great way to substantiate new projects.”

Oliver said he, fortunately, has never met with any resistance when trying to internally implement green projects. However, the weary tone in his voice told just as much as his success rate. “It takes a lot of work,” he went on. Projects move very quickly, and it’s easy for them to stall. Oliver found incorporating green into eBay operations was more than just receiving executive support—a point nonetheless suggested was integral, if not fundamental—and assessing and defining goals. You have to get people on the same page, according to Oliver, in terms of the types of metrics used to identify a problem all the way to the implementation and execution of a project. And getting people on board also gets complicated by resource limitations, deadlines, and expectations, Oliver added.

Emphasizing a project’s impact of investment, its ROI, and the data behind why to initiate a project are all reasons why Oliver likely has never received any push-back on a project. “Help people understand the benefits,” Oliver urged.

Chugging Along
When eBay opened up the Green Team to the public in early March, the company said then it did not have any specific goals or targets for the launch. They wanted to gauge the response and identify and address issues from there. Presently, the company seems closer to articulating specific goals it’d like to achieve. Donahoe mentioned the possibility of incorporating a green seller icon into the eBay marketplace, utilizing a similar feature currently in place in its World of Good marketplace. At the same time, it’s obvious that people at eBay—from those at the entry-level participating in green projects all the way up to the executive—are cautious about touting itself as a green company too much.

“Green has a lot of sizzle now,” Donahoe said, with a smirk on his face, anticipating his next line. “We want to be the steak, not the sizzle.”


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