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A Fortune 500 CEO Who Sits (Happily) at the Bottom of the Corporate Ladder

Cornerstone Editors

The traditional office hierarchy is looking more and more like a thing of the past. A lot of companies are moving to "flatten" their internal structure by making everyone feel more equal (from doing away with formal offices to eliminating job titles altogether to introducing employee rotation programs). Some are taking the opposite approach, with outsized job titles that can border on ridiculous.

What about a third way? Where leaders aren't at the top, or even in the middle. Think of an inverted pyramid, where the CEO is at bottom. What kind of senior leader in his right mind would willingly take on the role of office peon? A Fortune 500 leader, apparently. John Donahoe, the CEO of eBay, to be exact.

Put the Customer First

In an interview with venture capitalist Peter Levine, Donahoe discussed his "servant leadership" style. He's worth paying attention to: Donahoe is widely credited with turning about eBay in the six years that he's held the job.

Traditional hierarchies have never worked, says Donahoe. Instead, he uses an inverted pyramid mindset where the customer is the center of all conversations and decisions. Instead of having the C-suite and top executives at the top of the ladder, Donahoe suggests flipping it, so the customers are on top, followed by the customer-facing employees with the top executives on the bottom.

"Everybody inside the company exists to help [employees dealing with customers] serve the customers better," says Donahoe. "And I’m at the bottom of that pyramid, and ultimately my job is to clear channels to serve our customers well."

Make Employees Feel Valued

Donohoe also talks about "followership," where employees feel that the top executives are working for the employees, rather than the other way around. "If you want to have the absolute most talented people working for you," he says, "they can’t feel like they are working for you."

Be an Authentic Leader

Just because the inverted pyramid works for him doesn't mean it works for everyone else. Donahoe cautions leaders to choose the management style that feels authentic to them. "I wouldn’t try to copy someone else’s personality. I followed Meg Whitman, I had big shoes to fill," says Donahoe, referring to his predecessor at eBay. "But I couldn’t be Meg Whitman. I had to be me. The leaders that create followership, if there’s one common quality it is that they are authentic. Having good values, and then being authentic and transparent."

h/t: Andreezen Horowitz

Image via Can Stock Photo

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