Head to Head with Keith Robson from eBay Global Marketplaces

Head to Head with Keith Robson, Senior Director, Learning and Organisational Development, eBay Global Marketplaces


Tell us a little more about yourself and your role

I have a global remit with eBay Global Marketplaces which necessitates spending around 25% of my time in California, which is our corporate headquarters, and a good deal of the rest of my time travelling across our five key markets (North America, UK, Germany, Australia and Korea) looking after the people development needs of our 11,000 employees. Whilst my brief includes learning, leadership development, talent management and organisational development (OD), the majority of my time is spent on the latter two disciplines.

Within eBay, learning and OD run alongside global talent acquisition and compensation and reward as the three key pillars of the overall HR function. On joining eBay, I spent two years in Singapore before relocating back to London.

Previously I was the Head of Talent, Learning and Development for Barclays’ Emerging Markets business based in Dubai and, before that, I held similar senior positions with Bank of America and HSBC.  However, I started my career with one of our leading retailers, Marks and Spencer.

After ten years in a series of senior line management, commercial and operational roles, I moved into HR ending up as the Head of Executive Development with a specific focus on the development of the ‘top’ 200 executives.

How is the Learning and OD function within your company responding to the current aims and challenges of your business?

That’s a good question; especially as eBay is facing one of its biggest changes in our 20-year history.  In September 2014 we announced that we will be separating eBay and PayPal into two independent, publicly traded companies. In order to set the new companies up for success, we announced we would be eliminating 2400 positions across the whole company, or 7% of our global workforces to simplify its organisations, reduce complexity, speed decision-making and create competitive cost structures.

My focus is very much on ensuring we make effective interventions and help our people and line managers support and lead their teams through this challenging time. We will be providing this support via an intensive change management programme that will utilise the latest tools and methodologies designed specifically for the job.

A key focus of the leadership team now is to establish just what we want eBay to be after separation, as a stand-alone, independent company, and to ensure that we can continue to offer fantastic careers for our people in the ‘new’ eBay.

What do you see as the main challenge that the Learning and OD function faces in the future?

Wayne Gretzky famously said “skate to where the puck is going.”  I can relate to that and it’s something that the learning and OD community has got to do.We all know that right now we are witnessing something of a sea change in the way that our brightest and best are looking at their careers and adapting to the modern world. They are – or should be – becoming more agile in how they grow their careers, formality is melting away and it’s becoming far more about the individual and not the organisation.

There will always be a requirement for the established graduate programmes, for instance, but the way they are focussed is changing to reflect this – as is the key role of L&D and people managers in ensuring it. They are custodians of the employee’s career and have to appreciate and nourish it.

Here at eBay, we have just concluded an 18-month research programme looking at engagement, or what we call the ‘employee journey’ – from initial attraction and recruitment through to their exit and beyond as eBay alumni. We have identified seven stages in this journey that we are working to support and, in fact, three of those stages – onboarding, performance management and development/growth – have become a key personal focus for the President of eBay Global Marketplaces.

Outside of eBay specifically,  and looking ahead more generally,  I feel that there is certainly some unfinished business with regards to how we in L&OD relate and overlap with our HR business partner colleagues. Ultimately, we all just want the business to get it right but I think the varying disciplines need help in order to accurately define our roles to effectively meet new challenges.In a similar vein, Dr.Tommy Weir (a leadership guru in the Middle East) said “the war for talent is over and talent won.” 

The concept and role of talent management needs to be clarified. Surely this isn’t beyond us and I can’t say that I’m not disappointed that we haven’t yet worked out as a profession how this needs to be addressed.

What key characteristics do you look for in L&OD professionals when recruiting for your team?

My colleagues who work in the Learning and OD team are all familiar with what they have endearingly nicknamed ‘Keith’s givens.’ This is an established set of guidelines with regard to the skills and personality that I need our teammates to display and, in no particular order they include an ability to build strong, meaningful relationships and collaborate with and across the team and the wider organisation – and get noticed by the business.

A desire to execute like crazy, to get stuff done is essential and is a high degree of curiosity – never being happy to accept the status quo and always looking for new and better ways to get things done. And finally, I look for professionals with exceptional standards; I love it when people are driven to always do things better.


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