Great Leaders Get Off the Couch

Mike Peña, Stanford University August 3, 2017

A few months after her failed bid for California governor in 2010, veteran Silicon Valley CEO Meg Whitman found herself on the couch, completely deflated. The team she built for her campaign, the crowds who cheered her on, the 5 million California votes — not to mention the personal fortune she invested — all for naught.

There she was, the graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School who went on to head eBay during its most explosive decade of growth, from 30 employees and $4 million in annual revenue to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in annual revenue in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now, just her and Ellen DeGeneres on the TV in the family room of her home.

Her husband said this would not do and urged her to figure out what’s next. It didn’t take long.

Later that day, another tech-industry leader, Marc Andreessen, called to ask Whitman to serve on the board of directors for Hewlett-Packard. Less than a year later, the board invited her to be the company’s next president and CEO.

Once word of that got out, though, Whitman’s return to industry hit some turbulence. At the time, she was widely criticized in the press as being unfit to head a company as big as HP. On the day of her appointment, members of HP’s board apologized for once again subjecting her to intense public scrutiny.

But her time in the cutthroat arena of politics prepared her well. “It was a remarkable experience. And frankly, it made me a better CEO,” she said during a recent talk at Stanford as part of the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series. “I have a much tougher skin than I did before I ran for governor.”

At HP, she stabilized a company that saw the departure of two CEOs in just two years and headed the restructuring of a legacy high-tech giant into two Fortune 100 companies.

She did that by following several tactics that leaders should hone, regardless of context. In turning around the storied HP, Whitman first returned to the company’s foundational values and existing strengths. She also let actions speak louder than words:

During her talk, Whitman described how government and business require different leadership approaches and skills. And yet, her immersion in politics endowed her with more than just thicker skin when she returned to industry. Engagement with social and economic issues led to a deeper understanding of how business and commerce shape global affairs.

As Whitman describes below, leadership in innovation is still very much up for grabs. It will depend on which country can identify the industries with the most potential, and then realign its economy and education system so that it can foster, keep and sustain innovation in those sectors going forward.