Nurturing New Kinds of Leaders

eBay Inc. Staff

Editor’s Note: On April 30, 2013, eBay Inc. President and CEO John Donahoe posted the following story on LinkedIn:

In the start-up culture of Silicon Valley, a lot of attention is focused on founders of the next big thing. These founders are often larger-than-life personalities who are striving to create legend-making stuff that changes our lives. And indeed, without extraordinary founders, Silicon Valley would not be what it is today.

But despite all of the hot start-ups nurtured in Silicon Valley, the truth is that the Valley has produced very few great, enduring companies. We need more hot successful start-ups to become lasting, successful companies.

That means we need to nurture a new kind of leader. Whether a founder or not, these leaders must embrace the “founder’s mindset.” But they also must understand and apply what I call the “timeless principles of leadership.” Those who can do both not only will create great start-ups, they also will lead great, enduring companies.

Across Silicon Valley, I see a new generation of founders seeking this blend of leadership skills. Most founders focus on building amazing, innovative products. But many of the best founders that I know today also want to build great, enduring companies that “change the world” in significant ways. Doing the latter requires nurturing the kind of leadership that’s really required to build a company that lasts.

I know I’ll never be a founder. It’s not who I am. I’ll never create the next hot start-up. I often joke that I’ve never been hot in my life. But I am competitive. I want to win. And I want to lead a company that makes a difference in the world. That means I spend a lot of time learning from founders. And I spend a lot of time thinking and learning about leadership, about what it takes to build and sustain a great company, to create lasting and enduring success. That’s what matters to me.

Over the past few years I have learned an enormous amount from engaging with numerous founders. For example, I’ve been fortunate to work closely with one of the Valley’s great founders, Pierre Omidyar. We share similar ideas on what makes a company great. I also spend a lot of time with founders who have joined eBay Inc. through acquisition (we have about 15 founders in our company now), as well as with founders outside the company.

Spending time with founders makes me better at my job. I love the founder’s mindset. Founders have clarity of vision and purpose. They have deep passion for what they are trying to create. They are maniacally focused on their customers, on the product details and on the overall user experience. They are tireless in their commitment to achieving their goals. Perhaps most important, founders have a relentless commitment to innovation, often disruptive innovation. They have the courage and conviction to take risks, a fearlessness to do what has never been done before.

I’ve learned a lot from founders about innovation, about building great product experiences and about how to tackle old problems from new perspectives. This has been a powerfully enriching experience for me.

While I knew I could learn a lot from founders, what I didn’t expect is how much they would seek to learn from me, too. But then I understood: The most successful founders are faced with all the challenges that come with success – they need to scale their organization, to go global, to recruit and develop the right team as they scale, to build a sustainable culture, to work effectively with their board, and to lead by influencing others rather than doing it all themselves. These challenges require learning what I call the “timeless principles of leadership.”

The skills required to be a great founder aren’t the only skills required to build a great enduring company. Pierre understood this about himself early on and many of the founders I talk with today understand this, too. They want to transfer their vision to thousands of other people and build a company that lasts – and this requires that they embrace the time-tested business and leadership skills required to succeed at scale long-term. Silicon Valley – and business in general – need more of this kind of leader.

Each of us can strive to be this kind of leader. And those who do may well become the successful leaders of tomorrow’s great, enduring companies. So be a founder – act with clarity of vision and purpose; lead with courage and conviction; be maniacal about customers, innovation and delivering great product experiences. And combine the founder’s mindset with a broader understanding of the timeless principles of leadership. You’ll change the world, and create a great company that lasts.