Meg Whitman this week completed something that has never been done before: splitting one huge Fortune 50 company, Hewlett Packard, into two huge Fortune 50 companies, HP Inc. (where she is chairman) and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (where she is CEO).
And it all happened because she was moping around one Tuesday afternoon after she lost the California governor’s election in 2010.
She told the story in an onstage interview with Dropbox founder Drew Houston at Dropbox’s tech conference on Wednesday in San Francisco.
Whitman earned her stars in the tech world as CEO of eBay. That was another CEO job she had to be talked into. She didn’t want to leave her then-job, running a huge $US600 million unit for toy maker Hasbro.
eBay was Uber of its day, a company creating a whole new way for ordinary people to use the internet.
It was an insanely exciting job for her, she said. In its early days it was growing at an astounding 70% compound growth rate per month, she said on stage.
She resigned a billionaire after that torrential growth had slowed and she had been repeatedly put on the hotseat. She had no intention of ever taking another CEO job again in her life.
Here’s how she told the story of becoming CEO again (slightly edited):
The HP thing was a little bit of an accident. I said I would never be another CEO. If you’ve been the CEO of eBay, why would you be CEO of anything else, right? It’s probably never going to be that good.
After eBay, I ran for governor of California. That was not as successful as eBay, as it turned out. The good news is that 5 million people voted for me. The bad news was that 6 million people did not.
And I will tell you, just as an aside, we should be really grateful for people who want to run for public office. It is a brutal game. A full body contact sport, and it makes running HP at its most challenging like bouncing a basketball with one hand. People say running HP must have been as difficult as running in California. Not even remotely close. It is much easier to run HP and to do the turnaround.
[When you are a CEO] there’s an organisation, a thing with you. When you run for office, there’s nothing else, it’s a referendum on you.
The rejection is pretty tough. It’s like, whoa.
So it was February after the election and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I’m sitting at home in our family room on a Tuesday watching Ellen DeGeneres.
My husband, who is a neurosurgeon at Stanford, happens to come home early that day. He walks in, and there I am in the family room, watching Ellen DeGeneres at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
He’s like, ‘This is really not good. You need to pull up your socks and you need to figure out what you’re going to do here because this is just, well, not what you should be doing.’
And almost as if on cue, Marc Andreessen called. He had been on the board of eBay and he said, ‘Listen, I’m on the board at Hewlett Packard. We’re looking for a new board member. How about you come on board, sit on the tech committee. It will be so much fun. We’ll work together.’
And I said, ‘What a great idea. What could go wrong?’
HP is 12 minutes from my house. It’s a great iconic, well-run company. And so I said, ‘Yes.’
And the next thing I know, the company is sort of coming apart at the seams. And we made the most difficult decision a board can make, to remove the CEO.
And then we had to figure out who is going to run it.
And I said, “I am definitely not doing this.” And I was ultimately persuaded.
So I didn’t really prepare myself. I just sort of fell into it. Sometimes things are a bit random. So when I joined I just sort of had to figure out how to get it done.
And she’s fully aware that she’s still on the hook to figure that out. HP is now split into two companies to be more nimble, she hopes.
“I think people are pretty excited. Now we have to go execute,” she says.
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