Skip to Content

EBay CEO Donahoe bares his own work-life struggles

by Patricia Sellers

eBay CEO John Donahue

For a lot of people, their job is their life and their life is their job.

John and Eileen Donahoe decided early on that they didn’t want to live that way. One night when he was 23 and already an up-and-comer at consulting giant Bain in Boston, he wrote this message to his fiancé on a Shawmut Bank slip over dinner: “I will not live the life of a management consultant.”

Fast forward 27 years. Donahue, now 50, is the CEO of eBay (EBAY). Since jojning eBay from Bain in 2005 and taking over as CEO from Meg Whitman in 2008, he’s been leading a turnaround and doing a pretty good job at it.

The hardest part of the turnaround seems to be complete — Donahoe has replaced a lot of management and revived eBay’s earnings growth and its stock price. So now, he says, he is aiming to make eBay a model company for developing women executives who, well, want a life besides their jobs.

On Monday night in San Francisco, at eBay’s first-ever conference for its top women executives, he told 200 of them from 15 countries that he wants eBay “to be better than Amazon (AMZN), better than Google (GOOG), better than Visa (V).” A powerful lineup of women at the top of eBay, he said, “should be a source of competitive advantage.”

I too spoke at eBay’s Women Summit — shared my take on Oprah and Indra (PepsiCo CEO Nooyi) and Fortune’s other Most Powerful Women. It went well, but it was Donahoe who really won this crowd by revealing his own struggle for balance and flexibility in his career.

The CEO shared two anecdotes. When he was a young consultant in Bain’s San Francisco office, Eileen, just graduated from law school, had an offer to clerk for a federal judge — a gig that would leave her no time to take their two young kids to school every day. John, with a recently minted MBA and big dreams, decided he had to give Eileen her opportunity. So he went to see his boss, Tom Tierney, and told him he needed to quit the firm.

“Donahoe, you’re such an idiot,” replied Tierney. He told Donahoe, who had a client in Fort Worth that he visited weekly, that he would assign him to a local client. Donahoe reminded Tierney that Bain had no clients based in San Francisco. Tierney replied: “I’ll get one.”

Tierney persuaded Fireman’s Fund to hire Bain at no charge for three months. Assigned to manage the account, Donahoe took his kids to school each morning, started work at 10 a.m., and converted Fireman’s Fund to a paying and lucrative client for Bain.

“It turned out to be the most productive year of my career,” Donahoe explained. “A year later, I was promoted to partner.”

Five years after that, the Donahoes had four kids — three sons and a daughter — and the oldest were approaching high school. John wanted to spend time with them before they were up and gone. And, he said, “I was burned out.”

So he went to Tierney again and told him he needed to quit. Tierney replied: “Donahoe, you’re such an idiot.”

Tierney suggested that Donahoe take a sabbatical. “Tom, we don’t have a sabbatical program at Bain,” Donahoe told him. Tierney said, “Create one and go through it.”

Donahoe created Bain’s sabbatical program and was the first employee to go through it. “Two years later, I was made CEO of the firm,” he told the women of eBay, urging them to ask for flexibility as he did. “The worst thing is to assume you can’t do something,” he told them.

Things worked out for the Donahoes. They’ve been married 28 years. Their four kids are 16 to 26. While John is reengineering jobs and evaluation processes to help women advance at eBay (where 24% of the 900 directors and above are women and Tierney is on the board that recruited and appointed Donahoe chief), Eileen Donahoe has advanced quite far too. She is U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.

So, as he runs full-tilt at eBay (no sabbaticals for CEOs), she lives mainly in Geneva, Switzerland. “We’re making it work,” Donahoe told his women managers, sounding a lot like the crazy-busy moms in his ranks. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Are we doing a good job?'”