What CEOs admire: John Donahoe of eBay

March 1, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

While it's fun to be the flavor of the week, eBay's top executive looks up to companies that manage through the tough times as well.

John Donahoe:

John Donahoe: "Ultimately, your reputation is not what you say, but what you do."

FORTUNE -- We asked three prominent business leaders -- Jeffrey Immelt, Ursula Burns, and John Donahoe -- which companies they hold in high esteem, and why. Donahoe, CEO of eBay (No. 41 on our list of Most Admired Companies), talked with senior editor-at-large Adam Lashinsky on how great firms keep momentum going long after the buzz has died. Edited excerpts:

Q. Which company (or companies) do you most admire, and why?

A. I admire companies that successfully make the transition from "hot" to great, enduring businesses. While I won't single out one, enduring companies understand how to face adversity, which is inevitable in any business, and emerge stronger, more focused and more competitive. And they do it each time adversity hits. Almost every company has hot moments. But only great companies achieve strong, sustainable performance over time. While it's fun to be hot, it's far more gratifying to create an enduring, sustainable business.

Are there attributes of this company that you have imported into your own organization?

Enduring companies do the "basics" really well: They listen to their customers, have strong cultures with a clear sense of purpose and well-defined values, and have highly engaged employees. But I think great enduring companies also have organizational "character" -- and exhibit this by not being afraid to face up to adversity and embrace difficult change.

Are the corporate attributes you admire today the same ones you did at the outset of your career?

I probably pay more attention to purpose and values today and getting, developing and retaining top talent. Results always matter, and I love to win. But how companies win matters, too. Enduring companies are great because of their purpose, values, culture and leadership.

Times of stress bring out the best and worst in management. Which companies do you think have handled the recession especially well?

Companies that exhibit the characteristics I've described are probably doing OK. I'm very proud of how eBay (EBAY) has performed. I also admire how well Intel (INTC) (on whose board I am privileged to sit) confronts adversity and manages through challenging periods. Tough periods make strong companies stronger.

If, as the Supreme Court suggests, corporations are people, what would you want your own company's epitaph to be?

We created opportunity and made a difference in people's lives.

Do you only benchmark your company against peers in your industry, or do you think it is important to measure your company's performance against best-in-class organizations in other fields?

We certainly benchmark against our peer group, but it's always important to look everywhere for great ideas and best practices. Innovation can come from anywhere. We're a diverse, global company. And we need to be diverse and global in how we think and drive innovation for our customers.

Do you think multinational corporations overall are more admired by the general public today than, say, 10 years ago?

Surveys tell us no. But it's hard to make generalizations. Many great companies are doing work that broadly benefits communities and societies around the world. Each company should be judged on its own actions.

Do philanthropic and social responsibility initiatives really help burnish a company's reputation among customers and partners?

We believe strongly that social responsibility is an important part of a company's character and reputation. Consumers, employees and stakeholders pay attention to a company's values, actions and behaviors. But it's not just about reputation. We believe social responsibility and social innovation can create business value and drive customer, employee and stakeholder engagement. Ultimately, your reputation is not what you say, but what you do. And people expect companies to be leaders in this area.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the March 19, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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