Like Meg: Leadership Style in the Life of a CEO

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Introduction

Leadership is a tricky thing. It is made even trickier when traversing the complicated combination of power politics and public relations that define a CEO, President, or other executive’s professional life. In nearly every executive tale, there are “do’s and don’ts”, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. In these one finds the lessons of leadership. By looking at even one CEO in particular, students of business and leadership can learn about leadership style and philosophy, organizational values, how values affect organizational behavior, and how the balance between communication and collaboration, and power and politics can influence an organization’s dynamics. Meg Whitman, woman billionaire extraordinaire, is just one of those chiefs that lend insight into what people do when they are leading.

Background

Margaret Cushing (“Meg”) Whitman, born in the 1950s is an all-American business executive. While Whitman is currently working as president and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, her thirty-something year business career has been illustrious and commendable. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School, Whitman’s first twenty years of executive work was distinguished by strategic planning for the Walt Disney Company, DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro. After these experiences, Whitman is most well-known for serving as president and chief executive officer of eBay from 1998 to 2008. It was during this period that the company expanded from just thirty employees and four million in annual revenue to more than 15,000 employees and over $8 billion in annual revenue (forbes.com, 2013). In the height of this success, Whitman was cited as most likely to be the first woman president of the United States (Zernike, 2008).

After the successes of eBay, Whitman ran for governor in California’s 2010 race. In this race, Whitman spent the most personal funds on her campaign of any candidate in history, using $144 million of her own funds (White, 2012). Nevertheless, she lost the election to Jerry Brown. Following her failed foray into state politics, Whitman began working for Hewlett-Packard as president and chief executive officer in 2011.

Leadership Style & Philosophy

Even a brief look into Meg Whitman’s career makes it clear that she has exactly what it takes to work as a successful chief and president. She has both the decisiveness and inclusiveness for effective leadership. In the Inc. magazine article “Between Venus and Mars”, Leigh Buchanan states that what a leader needs in today’s world of operation is much different than what was needed in the past (2013). Buchanan lists these needed qualities like empathy, vulnerability, humility, inclusiveness, generosity, balance, and patience. While Whitman may not embody the picture of a nurturing leader, she nevertheless exhibits a balance of authority and nurturing spirit. This is what makes her leadership style and philosophy effective. Instead, Whitman embodies what Buchanan deems the age of empowerment. Her leadership at eBay required her to “trust people while insisting on integrity” (Buchanan, 2013). This is what gives insight into Whitman’s leadership style and philosophy.

Essentially, she takes a tough stance on issues and makes decisive decisions regarding them. She avoids the “hemming and hawing” as much as possible. But the key is that she only takes these stances and makes these decisions after listening and including many voices. As Loren Fox tells it, Whitman remains a “steadying presence” at work. “Her colleagues found her hard-working, dedicated, consistently upbeat, and relentlessly optimistic,” Fox says. “She met problems head-on and sought realistic solutions” (2004). This shows the decisive aspect. In balance, Fox also says that Whitman’s greatest strengths as CEO, “was that she remained open to advice, criticism, and opportunity” (2004). This is indicative of Whitman’s emphasis on inclusivity.

Values: Personal and Organizational

It has been said, “the personal is the political.” In much the same way, professionals and organizational behaviorists alike can say, “the personal is the organizational.” Whitman’s personal values have translated into the company culture of whichever organization she takes leadership. This is most clearly seen in Whitman’s ten-year career with eBay, as well as with her initial steps at Hewlett-Packard. She essentially wanted each company to be the best that it could be under her leadership.

From the beginning of her time with eBay, Whitman was tasked with the challenge of making the eBay site more professional and more profitable. To do so, she took the existing business model and suggested that the company undergo substantial structural changes (White, 2012). The first step in this overhaul was to put more funds into advertising. In 1998, at the time of Whitman coming aboard eBay, the company had no real advertising campaign. Whitman changed all that, beginning a national campaign and bringing on a former Pepsi marketing executive as eBay’s head of marketing.

In addition to changes in marketing, Whitman had the company focus on changes to the website, putting substantial funds into expanding eBay’s technical support and website design. This was all completed in less than a year, and eBay went public near the end of 1998, bringing eBay out of the limelight and into national focus. It is obvious that it was these major changes that aided in eBay’s success. As White notes, eBay’s business model was strong, but “many analysts are quick to point out that eBay would likely not have succeeded had it not been for Whitman’s efforts and expertise” (2012). Whitman has also brought this process of overhaul to Hewlett-Packard, beginning revitalization in the company in earnest immediately after joining in 2011.

Through these achievements, it is obvious that Whitman brings her personal values into organizational fruition. She encourages responsibility yet autonomy in her leadership, encouraging each employee to be his or her best – not primarily through threat, but through encouragement. Whitman saw success at eBay because she knew what the company needed and had the drive to achieve it. It is these personal values that promise to influence the ethical behaviors within each organization she leads.

Leadership Strengths & Weaknesses

Strength #1: Decisiveness

Whitman has exhibited quick actions based on an understanding of the issues at hand. While this is most clearly seen in the overhaul early on in her time at eBay, it can also be seen in the beginning stages of her leadership at Hewlett-Packard. Whitman uses her experience and knowledge base, as well as input from others “in-the-know” to make informed, deliberate and decisive decisions. This is a strength because it gives organizations, companies, and employees a clear trajectory.

Strength #2: Inclusivity

It is obvious from descriptions that Whitman is quick to invite the questions and input from others, whether it is investors or low-level employees. This aids both Whitman’s understanding of the organization and the company culture and organizational morale, leading to more productive and quality work. Whitman is also quick to own up to her limitations and ask for help when needed. This strength is especially helpful for top-level executives, who often take on a more autocratic or authoritarian role.

Strength #3: Expertise

Because Whitman has worked at many levels of business (from management to marketing), she knows what a company needs to be successful. She brought that knowledge base into eBay, focusing on the two biggest needs of the company at the time: technological advancement and marketing expansion. This strength, while important to Whitman’s leadership, is secondary to the other two strengths as desirable in a leader.

Weakness #1: Immediacy

Whitman’s drive for quick and qualitative results may make her prone to be impatient for production. While her quick decision-making has often been a boon for business, it may also mean a demanding attitude, inconsistent with an employee-oriented leadership style. It may also sometimes lead to a rash business decision, as with eBay’s acquisition of Skype, which ended in a revenue disaster for the company. This weakness is only the other side of the coin of the strength of decisiveness.

Weakness #2: Shortsightedness

Again, the desire to see good changes in a company may mean that the changes do not necessarily last. This is essentially a lack of patience, and a failure to take the long-term view. This is seen in eBay’s failure to adapt to expanding markets and losing its share in online revenue to companies like Amazon. While Whitman cannot read the future, she could apply her ability to see the “big picture” to adapting to future markets, clients, and expansions.

Weakness #3: Public Relations

Meg Whitman has a marked lack of public image. The little that people do know of her is limited to her failed gubernatorial race or her beginnings on eBay. More recently, she has settled a lawsuit with an employee who alleged that Whitman had shoved her (Hill, 2010). Seeing that she is one of the richest women in America, strong leadership in her position requires at least a little public relations. This protects both her reputation and her ability to relate to those under her leadership.

Contribution to Success

The quality that contributes most to Meg Whitman’s success is her “whole picture attitude”, as mentioned above in her leadership of eBay. Whitman was able to appeal to sellers as well as buyers, create a successful advertising campaign, make a smooth transition to a public company, and manage an ever-increasing employee base. Seeing the big picture is what has contributed to Whitman’s success.

Communication, Collaboration and Power Politics

Whitman successfully places an emphasis on communication from top to bottom, effectively ridding the organization she leads from the power politics that plague many larger companies. The most recent example of this is Whitman’s protracted restructuring of Hewlett-Packard. Whitman has encouraged top executives into cubicles to “facilitate communication”, stating that the company needs to “build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration” (Vance, 2013). As seen above, Whitman’s commitment to this engagement and collaboration is not limited to her new role at Hewlett-Packard. This is just one example of the ability to look to an executive’s actions to gain insight into their leadership style, their organizational values, and what their values, strengths, and weaknesses bring to the organization itself. The personal is the organizational, and this is exactly what Whitman brings to the table when she leads.

References

Buchanan, Leigh. (2013). Between Venus and Mars. Inc. Magazine, 35:5, 64.

Forbes’ List of Billionaires. (2013). http://www.forbes.com/lists/2010/10/billionaires-2010_Margaret-Whitman_5AW7.html

Fox, Loren. (June 9, 2004). Meg Whitman. Salon Magazine. http://dir.salon.com/people/bc/2001/11/27/whitman/index.html

Hill, Raven. (June 18, 2010). How to manage an office bully. Inc. Magazine. http://www.inc.com/guides/2010/06/manage-an-office-bully.html

Vance, Ashley. (2013). At HP, Meg Whitman wants people to show up for work. Business Week. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-09/at-hp-meg-whitman-wants-people-to-show-up-for-work

White, Thomas. (2012). Global players: Meg Whitman, CEO. Thomas White International. http://www.thomaswhite.com/global-perspectives/meg-whitman-ceo-hp/

Zernike, Kate. (May 18, 2008). She just might be president someday. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/weekinreview/18zernike.html