Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spoke about her career and offered advice to women gathered at the Simmons Leadership Conference in Boston on Thursday (April 5, 2012). Meg, who is now CEO of Hewlett Packard, was always comfortable speaking in front of an audience when she led eBay, and the calm demeanor that had escaped her during her political campaign was back as she spoke to 3,000 mostly women executives from around the world. But there was a new element to her public speaking on Thursday: she was far more candid about her personal life and feelings.
She spoke about the support she received from her husband, a neurosurgeon, in running a household with two children. She also talked about her mother, who had gone to college and served in World War II, becoming a fully certified airplane and truck mechanic. "Her experience during the war made her feel she could do anything."
Meg outlined her own career, from her Harvard Business School degree, to her time at Bain & Co. where her first boss was Mitt Romney, and to her roles at various companies leading up eBay.
Of the startup she joined in 1998 she wrote, "We did not build eBay. We provided the trading platform that connected buyers and sellers, but it was actually the buyers and sellers who built the company. It was the ultimate experiment in crowd-sourcing, what I later described as the power of many. What we can do together, none of us can do alone, and the eBay community build this company in a way that was really very unique."
She left eBay after 10 years with a "new appreciation for public service," fueled by her belief that people are basically good and her belief in the power of many, which prompted her run for the office of Governor of California, which she called a "fantastic learning experience." It was also the most difficult thing she had ever done, and, she said, "when you run for public office, it is all about you - it's a referendum on you."
She said some good came out of it - "Boy, did I get a thick skin. Politics is a blood sport. And it's seemingly everything is fair game. And in some ways, there is often a total disregard for the truth. But it taught me a lot of things."
"I have a calm about what we have to do (at Hewlett Packard) and keeping a steady hand on the tiller."
Meg sprinkled advice about leadership throughout her talk, among them, "The cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake." She emphasized the importance of having the right person in the right job at the right time, and she used an example of her time at eBay.
When she first arrived, her intuition told her she didn't have the right CIO. After going public, eBay had a well publicized 22-hour outage on June 10, 1999, because "the site wasn't architected correctly," she said. "It's like when you crash your car, you get it fixed, but it's never quite the same."
eBay was scheduled in August of that year to launch in Japan, and it lost its first-mover advantage and ultimately lost Japan to Yahoo. "We couldn't go to Japan, because we could barely run the U.S. site," Meg said, and eBay "lost out on the second largest Internet market in the world because I didn't follow my instincts to have the right people in the right job at the right time."
In the last presidential campaign, Meg's name was tossed around as a possible running mate to Mitt Romney if he would were to win the Republican candidacy. During the question-and-answer session, I asked Meg if she would consider being his running mate this time around.
"The answer to that is no," she said, explaining that when she decided to take the job at HP, she had to make a difficult decision. She said if Romney wins the presidency, there would have been an opportunity to serve in his administration, but she said she could not do that because she has to stay the course at HP.
"I am committed for the duration at HP."
I asked her if she would ever consider running for politics again after the brutal experience of her gubernatorial race, to which she replied, "I doubt it."
Meg's speech was well received, and a long line formed for book-signing, with many asking her to pose for pictures with them. The scene brought back memories of eBay Live conferences where enthusiastic users stood in line for an autograph from Meg, but without the red, blue, yellow and green decor.