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Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay: Transparency in Business
Under Meg Whitman’s leadership, eBay has changed the way the world buys and
sells secondhand goods. Before eBay, individual owners of antiques, family heirlooms,
used equipment, collector’s curios, etc., would take their items for sale to antique dealers,
pawn shops, etc., and hope to get a fair deal. They depended on the dealers to assess their
item and tell them what a fair price would be. Unless you were an expert, you would have
little idea how much that silver teapot you inherited from your grandmother might be
worth. Even the dealers might be uncertain – how much would someone pay for a picture
of Elvis made with dried beans? As Meg Whitman pointed out in her book (with Joan
Hamilton, 2010), The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and Life, eBay
added transparency to the buying and selling process. Potential buyers, including
professional dealers as well as hobbyists and other nonprofessionals, would have to
compete with each other to buy the products. Thus, sellers could be assured that their
items would be sold at fair market price regardless of their own knowledge. At the same
time, sellers had to be transparent and ethical as well: eBay set up chat rooms where
hobbyists could comment on sellers who inaccurately described their products.
Pierre Omidyar founded eBay and came up with the basic idea to sell used goods
over the Internet. Pierre knew he needed someone with administrative experience to grow
eBay from a small start-up with 30 employees to a major corporation. Meg Whitman had
experience as a consultant and as a business executive at major corporations like Disney
and Hasbro. Meg left her secure, high-paying executive job to join eBay in part because
she liked Pierre’s sense of ethics. Meg stated that it’s a myth that leaders have to be
unethical to win and “that great success demands that we give up, or at least fudge, our
relationship to what most of us recognize as decent, commonsense values. Honesty.
Family. Community. Integrity. Generosity. Courage. Empathy” (Whitman & Hamilton,
2010, p. 5). Meg believed that if they had treated eBay community members (i.e., users)
as a resource to be exploited, eBay would never have grown and prospered.
Interestingly, Pierre and Meg assumed that “most people are basically good”
(Whitman & Hamilton, 2010, p. 28). In other words, they believed that most eBay
community members would describe their secondhand products in a fairly accurate and
transparent manner and in general would treat each other ethically. Notice that Pierre and
Meg didn’t say that all people are always good. They realized that fraud and theft over
the internet occurs, so they created eBay’s Trust & Safety division to monitor the
transactions to prevent the selling of counterfeit goods, devious bidding tactics, or other
inappropriate behavior. But Meg argued that eBay works because most of their customers
are basically honest. She recommended that business leaders be realistic but not cynical.
1. How important is transparency to your interactions with your leaders?
2. Is transparency good for business? Why or why not?
3. Can leaders trust most of their employees and customers to be basically good? Why or
4. How is trust related to leadership?
Sources: Naguchi, S. (2011, October 26). Whitman gives $10 million to Teach For America. Retrieved
Whitman, M. & Hamilton, J. (2010). The power of many: Values for success in business and in life [Kindle
edition]. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.