‘We Leaned Into Our Marriage’

eBay CEO John Donahoe, and his wife, Eileen, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, on the 5 things that make their partnership work.

By Eileen and John Donahoe on July 15, 2013.
John and Eileen Donahoe with their four children when they were young.
John and Eileen Donahoe with their four children when they were young.

We have been partners in a wonderful and crazy adventure over the past three decades.  Our journey together has involved raising four children, creating a rich family life and pursuit of meaningful work.  While things may seem clear in hindsight, along the way we were never certain that we were doing things right and we had our moments of doubt. Listening to the passionate conversations around Lean In has led us to reflect on our own experience over almost 30 years of marriage. It’s made us realize that, without knowing it, we have basically been “leaning in” to our marriage, family and careers all along.

We were lucky to find each other in college and saw ourselves as equal partners from the start, so we operated from that starting place along the way. During those early years, we just assumed we would “have it all” – fulfilling marriage, family and careers. While we didn’t know how we were going to do it, we took it as a given that we would approach our lives as partners. It wasn’t always easy. But we have learned a few things along the way. Here are 5 things that have helped make our partnership work.

Keep a ‘Positive Sum’ Mindset

We never framed things in ‘zero-sum’ terms, such as career versus family or your career versus mine. We knew we wanted to integrate marriage, kids and both of our careers from the beginning. There have been plenty of tradeoffs, sacrifices and compromises along the way – these are unavoidable. But operating from a ‘positive sum’ mindset has served us well and opened up the possibility for creative solutions.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask … Creative Solutions Often Emerge

Several times we faced situations with our respective careers that on the surface seemed to conflict with our family life. In almost every case a creative solution emerged – that came about by asking for ideas or help from others. Here are a few examples:

  • When our firstborn son was 9-months-old, we were both in school at Stanford – Eileen was starting her first year of law school and John was in his second year of business school. As new parents, we were concerned about how best to take care of our son, so John approached the student dean at Stanford to ask to take a year off. The Dean immediately asked “Why don’t you try a reduced load during the fall and you can go part time if you need to?” We never would have imagined that the business school would allow a part-time MBA student – but by asking we found a path that allowed us to find the right balance.
  • A few years later, when John was a young consultant at Bain, Eileen began a legal clerkship that required her to be at work early morning every day. That meant John had to take the kids to school. John was travelling constantly and we thought the only solution was for him to quit his job. So he approached his boss at the time, Tom Tierney. Tom’s response was memorable: “Donahoe, you idiot. You don’t need to quit, we will find a way to make it work.” He proceeded to find a local client that John could support while taking care of the kids. It ended up working beautifully.
  • More recently, we faced another potential conflict when Eileen was offered an appointment by President Obama to be US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Given that John was CEO at eBay, and that our two youngest children were still in high school, this prospect at first seemed impossible. But our children’s first reaction to the news was, “That’s great Mom. You should do it! We’ll make it work.” And we did. John has tried to minimize his travel when Eileen is gone, and when she in Geneva we talk or Skype every day. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has worked more smoothly than we imagined.

Build Your Community

We have been blessed to find friends who also had complex family and career goals and were similarly working to balance the multiple pieces of their lives. Being able to share our struggles and listen to theirs helped broaden our perspective, led to creative solutions, and gave us the courage to believe that what we were trying to balance was possible. In moments of need they would provide encouragement and practical support to us, and we in turn felt privileged to do the same for them. Having a sense of shared community made us feel less lonely and uncertain about our choices.

Real Life Will Help Your Career

There is no doubt that our experience as parents of four has made us better at our jobs. On some level, there is no better way to build capacity for teamwork and creative problem solving than by working with a trusted partner to face the complexities and demands of a family.  Parenting tends to cultivate new capacities for multitasking and negotiating between different perspectives.  It also tends to make you more flexible and innovative at finding solutions. There is no doubt that our family life has made John a better leader and Eileen a better diplomat.  Facing the needs of our family and making trade off decisions together has brought out capacities for team work and problem solving that have served us both exceptionally well in our professional lives.

It is Really Hard … But Worth It

Our shared journey has taken a lot of hard work. We had plenty of challenges along the way and were never certain that we were “doing it right”. But we started with a vision of life full of family, friends and meaningful work, and stayed with it. This starting place, and the very process of committing to ‘lean in’ to family, marriage and career has given our lives a sense of purpose and meaning. We know there will be challenging moments ahead and times when the right answer does not immediately emerge. But we have developed confidence that by leaning in together, by relying on each other, seeking the support of our community and asking for what we need of others, the answers will emerge.

John Donahoe is CEO of eBay. His wife, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, is the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. They have four children, and live in Portola Valley, CA.  

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