Jamie Iannone became eBay’s chief executive officer on April 27, 2020, less than two months after the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down the world. So a year later, amid remote work and virtual meetings, it’s not a surprise that Iannone still hasn’t met some of the members of his team and board in person.
What is perhaps more remarkable has been how Iannone, the new CEO of a company and a self-described “big E” extravert, has adjusted his leadership style for this peculiar moment in history. He took advantage of virtual meetings to quickly meet other leaders, employees and customers across the world. He dropped into affinity group meetings, to get a better sense of the pulse of the organization and to better understand employees’ feelings about critical social justice issues. He even replaced the informal encounter in the hallway after a meeting with low-key Zoom calls to other leaders at the end of the day.
“I love the catch-ups at the end of the day — just swinging by, ‘How did the day go?’” Iannone said. “I get a lot of energy from those conversations with people. So I've tried to replicate that in a virtual environment where I'll just call people at the end of the day. They’re used to it now. But at first it was weird, like, ‘Oh no, Jamie's calling. What's he calling about?’”
Equally remarkable has been eBay’s performance in the past year. Company revenues increased about 20 percent in 2020 to cross the $10 billion mark, with results accelerating as the year went on. As bricks-and-mortar retail ground to a halt, eBay’s buyers and sellers turned to the trusted, 25-year-old site originally known for its online auctions; small businesses used the site to shift online, individuals used the site to make a bit of extra money during an economic crisis, and buyers flocked to the site for online purchasing.
Iannone was no stranger to eBay when he started. He spent eight years at the company at the beginning of the 2000s, holding a variety of leadership positions in areas such as global search, buyer experience and tailored shopping experience. Before rejoining eBay, he was CEO of samsclub.com, and before that EVP of digital products at Barnes & Noble.
Spencer Stuart’s Jason Baumgarten recently spoke with Iannone virtually, to reflect on his unique first year on the job and the challenges of leading in a virtual setting. Below is an excerpt of our interview, edited for brevity.
Take us back to the beginning of your tenure. Did you already have a sense of the long-term implications of the pandemic? And how did you put that into the context of eBay?
The first thing I thought about was, are we taking care of our employees? How well are our employees set up to succeed in this environment? You think about the thousands of call-center agents who are now working from home, you think about people who are in challenging home situations with a roommate and little room to work. We had to make sure our people were taken care of.
As a new CEO, it was critical to reset elements of the strategy and the culture. And I had to focus on how to do that most productively in a completely virtual environment. You wonder how well the company is set up to run completely virtually around the world. We obviously have business recovery programs and continuity programs in place [for crises], but for it to happen everywhere in the world was pretty interesting.
One beauty of starting a new role is that it's all about listening and learning. While I couldn’t meet most people in person, I was able to meet with multiple levels of our global leaders throughout the world without adding travel to the schedule. No one was feeling like, “Why hasn't Jamie visited?” I was able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.
The same was true for customers. Normally I would have also visited customers at the start of the job. Being able to do that via video, it was very easy to get on Zoom, even on short notice, to connect with our buyers and sellers. I found that really compelling because of the breadth of sellers and buyers that I was able to meet with — I could meet with a UK seller one day and meet with a US seller the next.
Looking at the impact of COVID on eBay, what changes are here to stay?
I think one of the most interesting things is the impact on our community. When you think about the small businesses that sell on eBay, we saw a lot of small merchants move online out of necessity. It accelerated the shift some of our small businesses had already made to go online, and then their business thrived during COVID, so much so that they may never go back.
In addition to the small businesses, eBay came to the need of individuals at a time of financial uncertainty. We did a survey last year that found 72% of people were using eBay to make extra money when they really needed it, and another 14% were using it because they had lost their job due to COVID. On eBay, we have a lot of what I call accidental entrepreneurs — people who have a hobby or passion and start selling a few things. And a lot of them go on to build successful small businesses on eBay. I think we've seen an acceleration of that for our business.
Internally, we gave our employees a lot of flexibility and tools to help them be successful during this time period. We gave two assistance payments, significantly increased mental health benefits, increased childcare support, and gave people additional time off. We really leaned into our individuals’ needs and wellbeing during this time period, and people found that they actually had more time and could be more productive because they could do it around their schedules. And in turn they were more satisfied on the job as well.
On a personal note, my rhythm has changed a lot in terms of figuring out how to replicate the thought time I used to have on my commute. I replaced some of that by exercising more, in part just to mix up the day, but also in part to just get the outdoor time. My kids have also both been home for most of the year, and because I haven’t been traveling as much as you normally would as a CEO, I’ve been able to see more of their day-to-day. I can actually check in with them during the day, and feel more connected to what's happening with them. I think that’s pretty fantastic.
Tell us a little about your personal journey, leading virtually in your first year on a job.
For me personally, it's definitely challenging not to be able to be in the office. I do a lot of management by walking around, and I really like to have a level playing field where I'm meeting all of our employees and getting around personally visiting all of our offices. And that's probably been the toughest thing for me; it's just really hard to do that all virtually. There are a few board members and one of my leaders who I've never met in person, and we've done some very large transactions where I would have loved to have gone and met the other teams.
That being said, I feel like it's beneficial that I spent eight years at the company beforehand, because I know a lot of the people and I'm familiar with the company. Coming in with that history and a love of the company, I often say that eBay is a magical place. It's magical from a perspective of working here and the brilliant people you get to work around. It's magical because of what we do every day. It's not just words on the wall. People really believe in what we're doing and the idea of economic opportunity for all. This pandemic has shown the opportunity we've created to help people and small businesses survive and thrive matters more now than ever before.
And then lastly, it's magical because of the personal connections. That didn't change at all during the pandemic for our community. In fact, it got more powerful, because people were able to help other people in need. In our UK business, we launched this PPE program where the National Health Service sought out our help to distribute PPE around the country, to care centers that needed it and the people that needed it. We've now helped distribute over two billion items of PPE as part of that program.
And to me, that's what eBay is all about: "How do we, in a time of need, help and be there for people?"