Did Meg Whitman Fail?

Last Updated Jan 23, 2008 10:38 AM EST

This is a tough question to ask because Meg Whitman has been a legendary Silicon Valley CEO for 10 years and one of America's leading women CEOs, but ask it we must: does her expected departure from eBay at the age of 51 signal a management failure on her part?

First the caveats: Whitman did an exemplary job lining up her successor, the highly likeable and energetic John Donahoe, who is 47. And yes, it makes some sense for a CEO to limit his or her tenure to a decade. And there have been broad shifts in the worlds of technology and finance that no CEO can possibly resist.

But the fact remains that Whitman's core business of online auctions is in trouble, as per this excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal. As widely noted, eBay has lackluster customer service and the user interface has not kept pace with the times. Ten percent fewer customers visited eBay.com in December than in December 2006, according to Nielsen Online. That was obviously a peak shopping month because of the Christmas holiday. If eBay was off 10 percent in visits in a peak month, what's going on?

Part of the explanation is that Whitman spent too much money on acquisitions, mostly notably Skype. The company has acknowledged that it overpaid by at least $1 billion. The question we have to ask is, did Whitman spend eBay's money in the wrong way? By making all the acquisitions, did she take her eye off her core asset?

Her departure at age 51 certainly suggests she knows that something went wrong on her watch. Very few CEOs decide to voluntarily retire until their late 50s, much as Steve Reinemund did at Pepsi. It's too young an age to go out to the pasture and graze.

So however many times Whitman has been on the cover of Fortune, and no matter how lionized she was as a pathbreaking woman CEO, it appears she didn't live up to her own hype.