It’s rather difficult to suggest which would be the more demanding job: running California in the wake of Arnold Schwartzenegger or HP in the wake of Leo Apotheker? Let it not be said that Meg Whitman isn’t up for a challenge.
As I write these words the news is all but official: Whitman, former leader of eBay and failed gubernatorial candidate, will expand her role at HP (where she already sits on the board) and take over from ex-SAP exec Leo Apotheker. If it doesn’t happen, the taint on Apotheker’s reputation is already too large to cover up. If it’s true, Whitman will inherit a company that only recently seemed more focused than ever before.
With the proposed spin-off of its Personal Systems Group, the killing off of its TouchPad tablet and an increased focus on enterprise business applications, Apotheker was charting a firm, decisive course that would take HP further from its roots as a printer and PC company towards something that looked like, well, SAP. That HP’s board would prove more skittish shouldn’t be a surprise. The moment former HP CEO Carly Fiorina decided to take over PC rival Compaq about 10 years ago, internal debate over the move eventually led to her ouster, too. HP’s board doesn’t really like bold new visions. It prefers slow, progressive evolutions, the sort of stately growth enjoyed by old-school firms like Proctor & Gamble, Hasbro and the Walt Disney Company – the kind of places that Meg Whitman learned everything she knows.
When you look into the literature (I’m tempted to say scholarship) about Whitman’s leadership style, you encounter the kind of hagiographies paralleled only by those devoted to (or co-written by) former GE leader Jack Welsch. Take this one from PaidContent, circa 2007 titled Meg Whitman: America's greatest CEO:
Meg Whitman has become the type of leader who doesn't need to wield power just to show she has it, unlike certain Presidents I could mention. Because she isn't in a position to enforce her will, she must learn how to guide through influence. In so doing it, it is safe to say that she is the type of leader who distributes power, but that isn't to say that the buck doesn't come back to rest on her desk.
She certainly did a good job at eBay, but eBay was not in the midst of the kind of transition that HP is experiencing. Neither would Whitman necessarily be described as a turnaround artist. What’s interesting is that her biggest success was at an online auction company. This is as opposed to a products and services company, a place that makes stuff. Instead, she excelled at a place that offered a valuable service, just as HP is trying to become more a service company to its customers.
Whitman’s track record has also been primarily with consumer-focused companies, as opposed to corporate clientele. That too could be a useful trait at a time when so much IT is being procured by everyday consumers, but there is no question her first order of business as HP CEO would be to prioritize the best areas of growth for its enterprise business.
If she takes over HP, she will have to decide whether to undo much of what Apotheker was in the process of starting or (more likely), guide through the changes in a way that is less turbulent to HP’s customers, employees and ultimately its shareholders. Of course, poor decisions can lead awfully quickly to severe financial repercussions, but the same was true when eBay was just one of so many fledgling dot-coms. In choosing Meg Whitman, HP would be bidding on a leader who knows how to act fast before time runs out.