Podcast Digital Leadership: Godert van Dedem (Ebay)

10 March 2021

Newpeople has interviewed a number of digital leaders in a series of podcasts, in search of the true meaning of this. In every podcast, the unique story of a digital leader is at the forefront.

Godert van Dedem – VP & GM Central Europe bij Ebay

“Cracking the code”. How do you maintain the digital mindset when you enter the grown-up phase? What does this mean for the leaders you attract? And how do you ensure that legacy does not stand in the way of the agility of the organisation? Godert van Dedem (VP & GM Central Europe at Ebay) takes us with his very personal story through his challenges, his view on how to remain agile as a grown-up and what advice he wants to give other digital leaders.


Podcast

From the REM island in Amsterdam, Newpeople is on the hunt for digital leadership, my name is Hanneke Rinkes.

The digital world demands a different kind of leadership. We live in turbulent times and the coronavirus pandemic has only served to increase the pressure. Just waiting around is not an option. Why is digital leadership so different to leadership as we know it? Why give it a special name? Make no mistake, it is not because everything is going online now. If that were the case, every leader would be classified as a digital leader.

As a step in Newpeople’s journey to find digital leadership, I am talking to Godert van Dedem (Vice President and General Manager Central Europe at Ebay).

Hanneke: “Welcome Godert. Great to have you here with us in the studio today, with the necessary corona measures in place of course. It’s a bit of a stale question by now but I’m going to ask you anyway: how do you do your job in corona times?”

Godert: “At home, and part of me really enjoys that. Before corona, I was travelling weekly to one of our offices located all around the world. A lot of that was in Europe, but still, it was once a week. That is gone now and I like it. However, I am at home all day now staring at a screen and taking part in endless Zoom meetings. All of our offices are closed, in Europe and in the US. In Asia, some are open again. The next months and quartiles, we don’t expect this to change. On the one hand, I like not having to travel. But, like many of my colleagues, I am just staring at the rest from behind a screen.”

Hanneke: “And how do you keep the spirit up?”

Godert: “It’s very difficult. We’re constantly trying to gage how everyone’s energy levels are doing and we try to devote time and attention to that but it is very difficult, particularly because we have hired many people in the past year that you don’t know that well yet. In my own teams, I can read people more easily and see how they’re doing and they will also be more open and honest towards me, but this doesn’t go for the others. So, I worry about the mental and physical state of the organisation. We do a lot to support that but we’re not really getting through yet so we’re all looking forward to being able to go out and see each other in real life again.”

Hanneke: “I think everyone is.”

Godert: “Yes everyone certainly is.”

Hanneke: “A new set part of these podcasts is the digital dilemmas. In this segment, I give you 10 dilemmas and you have to make a choice between the two as quickly as possible. Are you ready?”

Godert: “I’m ready.”

Hanneke: “New or second hand?”

Godert: “New.”

Hanneke: “US or China?”

Godert: “China.”

Hanneke: “Amazon or Alibaba?”

Godert: “Amazon.”

Hanneke: “Digital transformation or digital growth?”

Godert: “Growth.”

Hanneke: “Corporate or grown-up?”

Godert: “Grown-up.”

Hanneke: “Waterfall or agile?”

Godert: “Agile.”

Hanneke: “Skiing or ice-skating?”

Godert: “Skiing.”

Hanneke: “Tech or people?”

Godert: “People.”

Hanneke: “Algorithms or own choices?”

Godert: “Algoritmes.”

Hanneke: “Adevinta or Ebay?”

Godert: “Ebay.”

Hanneke: “Some striking choices. For example, you choose for people and not for tech. If I look at your career, one could say that you have been a pioneer in the digital domain, you have always worked for tech companies, digital native companies. Was that a conscious choice?”

Godert: “Yes, actually it was. Even in my university days that was a choice I made. I studied economics and administrative information science, which is basically IT and economics combined. I always had the idea at the back of my mind that IT and technology would start to play a bigger and more important role in our lives and in organisations. How should I look at that? What is my role within that? In the choice for all the companies that I have worked for, the common factor has been technology – either technology as an enabler, or technology as the core, or even as consultant, which is how I started out, in doing assessments of IT and tech organisations. I thought then, and still do today, that technology is an extremely important driver in organisations. A driver of growth but also just an important factor in our lives generally. I am always very curious to what it is and what I can do with it in the various roles that I have taken on in a variety of companies.”

Hanneke: “And when asked to choose between tech and people, you chose people, how does that fit within that vision?”

Godert: “Well in the end the question that I and a lot of companies ask ourselves is what does technology do in our lives. What does it do for a client at Ebay for example? What does it do for a buyer or a seller, those are all people that are either trying to run their companies as sellers or that are interested in the things they need in their life as buyers, therefore it has to have added value in people’s lives. I also enjoy working in an organisation where I work with people to shape the technology instead of just taking people out of the equation and replacing them with technology.”

Hanneke: “And looking at you and your career, you’ve been at Ebay for 10 years now and experienced many developments, but if you were to examine the highs and your role in them, what would that be?”

Godert: “Yes, in 10 years of Ebay I have done many different things. I have always worked on how product experience can be improved. How do we use innovations and improvements in apps and websites for buyers or for sellers? How is it relevant or different per country? Buyers and sellers come together in a country and in France those actors are slightly different from Germany, or from the US, or from Australia. The way in which we offer technology and experiences has to be a little bit different and relevant every time. That is something I have worked on a lot. I have also worked on building centres of excellence that are more efficient and offer added value, first to a few countries in Europe and continuing to become bigger after that. So how do we communicate with our sellers through better platforms, how do we ensure that technology or CRM is organised in a better way? I’ve been working on implementing that and I’m still doing that actually, it’s a big part of my current position.”

Hanneke: “Do you think that’s your biggest success? Focussing on that and realising it?”

Godert: “I think it’s in those centres of excellence, thinking about how we can really add value and create efficiency within an organisation. We’re a big company. We’ve existed for a long time and that’s why we’ve grown to become large and we’ve created many silos. I try and break through those silos and examine how we can keep the client (either seller or buyer) in mind in the choices that we make and try to break through silos. In a number of places I have been successful in that, which I am content with, but in a number of places I haven’t, which frustrates me.”

Hanneke: “What is in the way of that?”

Godert: “I think it’s mainly being too focussed on internal matters so everyone stays in their own domain and is not driven enough by what a client (buyer or seller) sees, and how does a client experience Ebay? Right now, a client has to navigate between departments and probably notices that they don’t all seamlessly connect together. That needs to change. We need to look from the client’s perspective much more: how can the client experience the whole process as smoothly as possible? Those domains and silos are sometimes still in the way of that and I think that is because we have grown to be too big. The risk of an organisation that is too big is that its departments become too big, too strong and therefore too isolated.”

Hanneke: “Could you describe Ebay as a corporate?”

Godert: “I think you could. We’re 25 years old and have 15000 people working for us around the world and so do act kind of like a corporate. We have a large central organisation with differences between countries, very American so less vision on the rest of the world and on Europe. The job of people like me is breaking through that and building new bridges and connecting so we can break through those corporate silos.”

Hanneke: “And how do you do that? How do you make connections?”

Godert: “I spend a big part of my time building up and nurturing relationships between people within the whole organisation. Relationships that transcend layers and that transcend different teams. It helps to have been here for 10 years already, I’ve already worked with a lot of people in various ways. I’ve been able to see many people in real life before corona and that helps form a connection. That connection is important, it helps me talk to people more easily and helps me understand other teams’ agenda a bit better. And I have enough context, and ask myself what is the Ebay strategy? What do we want now? A lot of time is spent maintaining relationships between people throughout the organisation and making connections, introducing new people to each other in such a way that they can also do their job, get to know the right people more quickly and that those right people understand the goals of the new people. So, making connections is something I spend a substantial amount of my time on.”

Hanneke: “And is that something you enjoy?”

Godert: “Yes, I really enjoy that. Going back to the person, I get a lot of energy from being in contact with people. I love the kind of people that we take on at Ebay, they are inspiring, energetic, driven, regardless of the country they come from or what part of the organisation they are involved in. That gives me energy, I enjoy doing it and luckily I have a lot of colleagues that feel the same way. It goes fairly easily but it is also very important.”

Hanneke: “Is that the reason why Ebay asked you as General Manager Central Europe?”

Godert: “Amongst other reasons. Because of my history with the organisation I also understand what needs to be done better, I am known and can use my network in that. I also spend a lot of time on strategies and specific strategies. As I indicated before, I have spent a long time working on the question of what is the product innovation that is needed in a specific country? The countries that I oversee all need a specific agenda. Recently I’ve been working on what the strategy should be for the unique French path for our French Ebay organisation. What is unique about the Italian Ebay organisation? With the teams there, we have set up a plan that is very specific and relevant to that country. Those strategies and tactics are clearly different from those in Germany or those in the US, or those in the UK. And we’ve also really focussed on the question of what levers are under our own control? There are a lot of things that we don’t control ourselves, like a large part of how the website and the apps work gets decided in the US with a kind of bias of what is needed over there. But what can we do in these countries and let’s focus our efforts on that. Before I came along, a lot of energy but also frustrations went into certain things not coming to Italy or France or Spain. I stopped that and, in conjunction with the teams, started working on a specific plan for these countries. I know the countries and a lot of their people well so that helps. And now, also because Ebay is doing well, we can invest a bit more and invest more specifically according to the specific strategies these countries need. So, I am partly here because I am known and can connect and can bring these countries what they need, and partly because of making a strategy that is relevant for Italy, France, Spain etc.”

Hanneke: “I could also imagine that those countries simply think: I want to do what I feel like doing, because that is the classic problem and the classic source of a lot of frustration. So, that’s your strength, ensuring that those countries do keep a certain level of autonomy within Ebay.”

Godert: “That’s right. I make sure that there is a defined direction and that it’s clear where they should be going and what the guidelines are within which they should be operating and grant a lot of freedom within all that. What I’m basically doing is making sure that there is a platform or podium for all the teams to become more visible. Last week, Italy’s country manager went to the Board of Directors to present her plan. It’s probably been about two years since Italy was last examined in detail by the Board of Directors. I make sure that her story is accurate and good but I let her tell it. It’s her show. She’s given a lot of autonomy, she takes the stage and I just facilitate her in that.”

Hanneke: “Listening to the stories you’re telling, it sounds like your leadership style is very much that of the facilitator, someone that creates conditions and boundaries within which others can work.”

Godert: “Yes, we have very senior and experienced and good people and they need that, I give them a lot of space and a lot of confidence. I remove the obstacles that might stand in their way and I ensure the necessary facilities are there like money, means or a headcount. I see that as my job more than really getting into the details when the teams are perfectly capable of doing that themselves.”

Hanneke: “And how do other employees see you? Do you have a particular kind of feedback system?”

Godert: “Yes, we actually devote quite a lot of time and attention to that. In the past couple of weeks there have been end of year reviews in which we really took time for this. We started off by judging the whole organisation in conjunction with the people managers before the reviews started. We look at how everyone has performed relative to each other and obviously we also look at what everyone has done vs their own plans and goals and at how everyone has operated vs our own values and beliefs. On both of those points, we examine how well we think someone did. Bonuses and rewards depend on that but very elaborate feedback is also given and written that is now becoming a part of the plan. We’re trying to do this with a higher frequency and not only at the end of the year but also in the middle for example. We’ve been doing that more and more explicitly and documenting it well. In between these feedback moments, we try and spend a lot of time on coaching, mentoring and feedback so that everyone knows how they can grow in the Ebay organisation and in their career as a whole.”

Hanneke: “Do you ever ask people in your team “what do you think of me? What do you expect of me? How’s it going?” Because you expect, like you said, that it gets documented and monitored and it sounds like a big undertaking.”

Godert: “I don’t do that often enough actually. I do receive a lot of implicit feedback and sometimes explicit feedback too. In the end of the year reviews, we often do 360 feedback rounds whereby feedback is asked from various parties. If I’m being honest, I would want explicit feedback from my teams more often, also about me. That doesn’t happen enough which is a shame.”

Hanneke: “I can imagine. You just said grown-up, but does it also have something to do with more of a shift towards corporate? That you notice that it gets documented somewhere for example. What happens to the feedback that you give?”

Godert: “I think the further in your career you get, the less feedback you get. The intensity, quality and elaborateness of the feedback become less. For people that are younger and have not been with the organisation for as long, the feedback is much more detailed. It has a lot to do with growth and seniority, which is actually a shame.”

Hanneke: “Do you ever ask your CEO for feedback about you?”

Godert: “I received quite detailed feedback last period but in between the periods, it doesn’t happen as much. It’s definitely there, but outside of formal check-ins, it’s limited.”

 

Hanneke: “A lot is written about the economy demanding a very different style of leadership, what is your view on this?”

Godert: “Companies that have technology at their core have a lot more data. This means they’re able to use said data in their decision-making. Particularly the direct responses of clients, buyers or sellers. Our decisions and subsequently how we lead, become much more driven by real data that comes from clients. Being client obsessed or client focussed is a lot easier in companies driven by technology, because there are a lot more facts, numbers and data to inform you. That is a factor that allows you to do that. The other part is more a question of necessity. The competition is very flexible, more innovation is happening everywhere so you can’t sit still. Your own data is important but so are your feelers about what is happening around you because there is so much change happening at such a rapid pace. Innovation speeds everything up and if you stay still for too long, you’ll be overtaken from all sides. Ebay has definitely noticed that. We used to be the only one of our kind. At some point, Amazon came along and overtook us. On our consumer side, there were parties that are very quick and flexible and created a large reach in no time, they were also very competitive. Suddenly, we’re in competition with companies like StockX that is very good in certain categories and also very specific. A part of our strategy is also becoming very specific and relevant. On the one hand, there is a lot of data and information that can be used to make the right decision in a more informed manner. On the other hand, you have to stay focussed regarding what is happening around you and if you’re flexible enough to work with that. You used to get overtaken within a span of 0 years maybe, these days that can happen within a year. You have to be flexible enough, even if you’re already big, to go along with that. This demands permanent flexibility from any organisation, even one that is already very big.”

Hanneke: “And a lot of flexibility from a leader.”

Godert: “Indeed, a lot of flexibility from a leader. Are you able to make decisions based on data? Do you keep the client in mind enough when making decisions? Do you know enough about what’s happening around you? Are you flexible in your head, in your strategy and are you able to bring the organisation with you in such a rapidly changing market?”

Hanneke: “10 years ago you started at Ebay and at that time it was a very different kind of organisation than it is now. Our experience is that the height of digital maturity an organisation has, has an influence on the type of leadership needed. I feel like you’ve experienced many different phases, which phase is best suited to you? Or are you so agile that you can use your strengths and qualities in every phase?”

Godert: “I have worked with a couple of start-ups. It was still easy to move a lot there but that also came coupled with a lot of risks. In 2001, the first internet bubble burst and many companies had to reinvent themselves. Fascinating stuff but also difficult when you’re still young and vulnerable. I think I fit well in a large organisation like Ebay. There is enough power and enough drive to innovate. The frustrating thing is that sometimes it is so big that it moves too slowly. It’s a kind of containership that’s not flexible enough even though we can see very clearly what is happening around us. Right now we’re working on how we can drastically improve the speed of innovation. That’s going to make it pleasant, also for myself. Everything I see in the market that I would like to get in on, or the gaps in our experience that I would like to fill, we can react to much faster as the innovation speed becomes faster. If it becomes a lot bigger I think I would get lost in the organisation, so I think this suits me.”

Hanneke: “So you grew with the company?”

Godert: “Yes, I think so.”

Hanneke: “If you look at your career, have you had moments where you thought maybe this wasn’t such a great choice or I would have done this differently in hindsight?”

Godert: “Yes, I have had a lot of strategic and support roles at fusions and takeovers. They were very interesting roles that are very important for a company but they’re too far away from the operation. I made the switch to more operational roles quite late actually. In these roles I had a more explicit target that I had to achieve, right now as General Manager a P&L and all the client matrices that come with that. In hindsight this is a switch that I should or should have wanted to make a lot earlier. It was a kind of jump, but a very important one that I should have taken earlier.”

Hanneke: “Was there a certain moment where you really thought this is what I’m going to do now, I want to be closer to the operation so I’m making this choice consciously? Or how did that go?”

Godert: “I think it was a mix of opportunities that arose thanks to the person that I had supported up to that point, that helped and pushed me a little, and of the right jobs coming along that fitted with that very well, and of my drive to want that. So, it was circumstance as well as my sponsors at that moment enabling me that were the most important triggers. After that I also taught myself and proved myself, can I do that? My conclusion was that I enjoyed it, I was good at it and I don’t want to go back.”

Hanneke: “And if you were to give your children advice for when they want to pursue a particular career, what would your most important advice be?”

Godert: “I think curiosity is extremely important. Curiosity about the people around you, and what drives them, curiosity about your clients and the surroundings, curiosity about innovation and the playing field that you find yourself in. Curiosity is of the utmost importance, you have to be open to what is happening around you and that has to be combined with a kind of impatience. You shouldn’t wait too long but be quicker to just try something and be okay with failing from time to time and know that it’s okay if something doesn’t work out from time to time. It’s better to just reward curiosity and to try things than to wait too long with that. or, to wallow in a kind of comfort.”

Hanneke: “What is your curiosity, what’s the next step after Ebay?”

Godert: “Ebay 10 years. I think I can still be here for a while. Ebay has a great purpose which is what binds me to the organisation. We are here to create economic opportunity for all and this is something we strive to actually do. There is a lot we can still achieve there. Ebay has a large impact on the world. The past year this impact was visible in helping store owners whose shops had to close, to continue to be able to sell using our platform. Working in such a purpose-driven organisation is something that really appeals to me and I think I will continue to enjoy it for a long time. I’ve only just taken on this role so I think I will still be here for a while. I think at Ebay we have reached an interesting point now. The past year has given us the chance to grow very quickly and to put ourselves on the map again, more so than before. Now it’s exciting to look at what that means for the future. We’ve started on a new path of growth and I would like to stick around and see how that plays out. The technology that we started out with continues to be important to me. That is a big part of where my curiosity lies, there are definitely still big, interesting jumps to be made. As an organisation, we work a lot with data science because we have such a massive amount of data. That is something that I want to continue to develop. I have one team that handles all the communication to our sellers, of which we have two million worldwide, and with that team I’m working on the question of how we can make the choice of which channels to use at what moment and to whom do we send what, more sophisticated? If we do that, we’ll become much more efficient and we’ll reach more sellers which will impact how successful and effective they are on that platform. The aforementioned questions are very interesting ones that still can use years of work. After that, good question. I think I’ll always want to do something involving technology and something with big organisations where I’m surrounded by driven and enthusiastic people. My role will undoubtedly change and that is okay but that mix of technology and people is something that really intrigues me.”

Hanneke: “And if they ask you to transform a company, you won’t be jumping up and down with joy?”

Godert: “It really depends on whether the transformation is a serious one. I used to work at a group of “gouden gids” companies that didn’t really take the transformation to online and to mobile seriously. They had such a history of producing and selling books, that that industry doesn’t really exist anymore. At that time I was very into strategy and fusions and takeovers and was really pushing for moving to online and mobile channels quickly because that’s where the opportunities for growth were. We had a number of important assets but it was too complicated to achieve that because the history in that company was so old and so strong and had been successful for so long that the transformation didn’t go well. If an organisation is serious and the whole organisation goes along with that, that can be very interesting. That’s when you really start to embrace the digital elements that are relevant for that particular industry and make them the core. I think that is very interesting but I have noticed that it is difficult when there is too much history in an organisation.”

Hanneke: “Yes, that’s something that we notice too. Legacy often gets in the way of companies that need to transform. The question is how you can turn that around because you don’t know what you don’t know. If you have a history of everything always going well then there is no urgency to discover other channels.”

Godert: “One of my observations was that perhaps it demands a new type of leadership. Not necessarily a new attitude but one that is not burdened with that legacy. The collective management that was at the “gouden gidsen” probably had 150 years of collective experience in making the “gouden gids” book. That is actually in their way. Fresh, different blood helps, they don’t have to be digital natives but they need to not have that legacy.”

Hanneke: “So you could say that a company like Ebay, that is in the grown-up phase, should actually enter the transformation phase again because it has actually become a kind of corporate.”

Godert: “True. If you move from being a scale-up to being a grown-up, at some point you just become an institution with the politics and the silos and the slowness that we talked about before. Those are all things that are in the way which means you can get overtaken by start-ups but also by scale-ups because they are more flexible, can operate more easily and the silos are not as embedded. Actually the grown-ups need a transformation to a model that resembles that of a scale-up. It’s interesting, how do you decide that that is what is needed and what do you need to achieve that? But that it is necessary is definitely something that we can agree on. A grown-up sometimes just becomes too slow and too political and even if they’re digital natives, they move too slowly, more slowly than the competition.”

Hanneke: “So actually, when you’re in the scale-up phase you should already examine what you have to do to ensure you don’t end up there. The business goal is of course growth but we don’t want to become corporate and it’s interesting to see what is needed for that.”

Godert: “What mindset do scale-up managers have? Can you keep that up? What changes when you move to the next phase? Have people been there for too long and are they stuck or is the organisation becoming too big? How do you work with that? The mindset and management style of scale-ups is interesting, it’s something you should either want to keep or transform back to to make sure you don’t become too big.”

Hanneke: “And if you look at yourself, do you know where that is? Because you’re also a part of it.”

Godert: “Maybe it has to do with complacency. That you simply accept the fact that something is the way it is, instead of thinking, things can’t be this way, we simply have to move more quickly. Those silos can’t exist because they get in the way of our clients. There is not so much that is actually in the way besides our mindset. Complacency is something that we need to get rid of.”

Hanneke: “The question is how.”

Godert: “Reality should be enough. Growing competition or diminishing growth rates are things that need to be addressed. There should be enough to achieve that but I think it’s the mindset that’s in the way. I don’t know how you would be able to measure that or research it or see what the effect of a fresh cohort of leaders would be. People fresh out of the scale-up phase who bring that enthusiasm and lack of complacency.”

Hanneke: “You should actually always have that scale-up mindset, leaders that do well in scale-ups are not necessarily leaders that will get far in Ebay because they also run into problems. At Google, people just sit down in a room and examine how they can completely take down their existing business model. That keeps you on your toes and driven to keep innovating and developing. I think Adyen has that mindset. They try very explicitly to act like a scale-up but when you look closely, they are big enough to be a grown-up. The way in which they achieve that is interesting, what kind of digital leaders do you need for that?”

Hanneke: “I used to work for BSO and they had the philosophy of when you become too big, you need to split. The idea behind this is keeping the entrepreneurial mindset.”

Godert: “The first question to ask when you’re a tech company is, how much should you do with people? Then the question becomes, if you have a lot of people, at some point you should start to organise them which will irrevocably create silos. Wintzen’s model is an interesting one. He clearly really thought about, even then.”

Hanneke: “He copied it from the baoriginal tribes. When those became too big, they split up and continued as two separate tribes because apparently that is the optimal balance of people working together.”

Godert: “You need to wonder, is that because we simply like that kind of structure? Does a group of people that is continually growing want hierarchy and structure because the herd doesn’t function well otherwise? Or can you also be agile with a team of 100? How do you organise that? I don’t think there are any organisational models for that yet. They are not self-managing teams but what are they? There is a kind of laziness in that.”

Hanneke: “Humans are inherently lazy creatures.”

Godert: “We tend to claim, I can’t do something because I don’t have the people for it. That’s true but there are also other considerations that need to be taken into account. It’s never the case that everyone is always equally effective and has an equal amount of added value so choices need to be made within that. I think that organisations don’t look at operational excellence enough. Sigma Black Belt is constantly examining, is what we’re doing right now in this way with this group of people the most effective way to do things?”

Hanneke: “That’s why I think it’s funny that you didn’t at some point run into something and think, this is not my company anymore, it doesn’t suit me. Some people just don’t want to work for a company in the grown-up phase but at a company that needs to scale.”

Godert: “The big difference is that I had just come from the “gouden gidsen” at that time. I thought I had completely missed the boat but Ebay is still taking big steps. At the time I was a part of the group that Marktplaats also belongs to. That was very flexible, very dynamic. I wouldn’t have wanted to be there. That’s when I switched to Ebay and that really made a difference.”

Hanneke: “I would like to thank you, you really gave us an insight into what you’ve done at Ebay and the developments you’ve experienced. If you could give our listeners one last tip, what would that be?”

Godert: “The same as to my children: stay curious. Look around you, look at what your clients are telling you. Look at what’s happening in the playing field around you, look at what your organisation is telling you. If you bring in a lot of new, young people fresh out of school, make sure to listen really well to how they view your industry. Curiosity is very important and make sure to be impatient too.”

Hanneke: “Godert, thank you very much.”

Godert: “My pleasure.”

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