Last month, the Los Angeles Times sat down with Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, to discuss her first 15 months on the job. The story from that interview ran earlier this month.
The interview came just a few weeks after HP announced that it had uncovered a massive accounting fraud at Autonomy, the British software company it acquired in 2011.
When the Autonomy acquisition was announced in August 2011, Leo Apotheker was still CEO and Whitman was on the HP board. The controversy over that deal and its hefty price tag, coupled with an announcement that HP was thinking about selling its PC business (known as the Personal Systems Group, or PSG) led to Apotheker’s ouster and Whitman’s hiring in September 2011.
During the 30-minute interview, Whitman discussed her reasons for taking the job at HP, several of her major decisions as CEO, and the challenges, both expected and unexpected, that she has faced.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: When you were announced as the next CEO of HP, it was a surprise to a lot of people. What about this job appealed to you?
A: It was not part of my plan, as you probably know. I think I’d said many times that my last CEO job was going to be eBay. But I was on the board. And the board made the decision that Leo was probably not the right guy. And the board asked me to do it after going through a bit of a process. In fact, a fair amount of a process. And I said, “Hmm, you know what? I think I can help this situation. I think I can make a difference here.” It is a Silicon Valley icon company. And I have, through my entire career, a series of skill sets that actually would be helpful to HP. So that’s why I decided to it. But it was not the long-intended plan: Let’s go and be the CEO of HP.
Q: Following your experience running for governor of California, did you have misgivings or hesitations about taking on a job that would be so closely scrutinized and so high-profile?
A: I thought about it a lot. But I was pretty used to high scrutiny (laughs). And I thought I could make a difference. But I thought about it long and hard, because it was a big commitment of time. And also a big commitment of seeing this turnaround through, which I knew, because I’d done turnarounds before, I knew this turnaround was not a one-to-two-year program. Even before I took this job, I knew it was a bigger undertaking.
Q: When the announcement was first made, you were very visible, going on TV and granting a lot of interviews. During the campaign, you were criticized by some for not being more accessible to the press and the public. Did you make a conscious decision that you needed to be more visible in this role?
A: A company like HP needs a leader and it needs someone who can be the face of the company. And by the way, there were some pretty big decisions that needed to be made right away. The spinning of PSG group, what do about webOS (the mobile operating system HP owned through its acquisition of Palm), leaders, etc. But I think companies absolutely need a face of the company. There needs to be a leader and there needs to someone who speaks for the company. And that has to be the CEO in 99.9% of the cases. In some cases, like at my eBay days, it can be the founder. My founder didn’t actually want to speak the for the company (laughs), but often it can be the founder. In this case, obviously, it had to be me.
You know, versus the campaign, it’s a juxtaposition. Because I felt like I did a lot of work with the media. I did a lot of interviews. Almost every place I was, I did television interviews. So the narrative was "Meg never speaks to the press." But if you actually look at the record, of the number of round tables, press avails, TV, I actually did probably more than what was widely acknowledged. And you know how narratives stick in political campaigns. That was the narrative. But I don’t actually think the narrative was factual.
Q: Regarding PSG, it seemed like a no-brainer not to spin it off, given the negative reaction to the initial announcement. But how hard of a decision was it?
A: I assembled a team of about 100 individuals, and I split the team into two. And I said there’s a team that’s going to argue the case to keep the business, and there will be a team that will argue to not keep the business. And so we did a very significant amount of analysis, a deep dive into the business, a deep dive into the synergies, what it meant for customers, what it meant for our supply chain, what it meant for our brand. I was involved all the way along.
And then there was a presentation by both sides. I actually had people who, if you will, might have had a self interest in one outcome. I made them work on the other side. And then at the end of that day where we pulled all of the analysis together, it was obvious to me that the right thing to do was to keep PSG. So I don’t know that it was an easy decision. But I felt like it was the right decision. And any decision you make in business, or in politics or your life has pluses and minuses. But I felt like it was the right thing to do for the company.
Q: Do you find it odd that there are now some rumblings from Wall Street saying, "Hey, maybe they should get rid of the business?"
A: When you have a company that’s not performing the way various constituencies expect, there’s always a lot of ideas about what you should do. Buy this, sell this, try this strategy, that strategy. And so I take it all in. But I think it was the right decision and we’re in the first inning of this turnaround. It’s a year in. And in the end, I think people will look back and say we plotted the right course for HP. But the proof will obviously be in the pudding.
Q: One of the next big decisions was to part ways with Shane Robison, chief strategy and technology officer. Can you talk about that move?
A: I think you know this, from talking to CEOs who come into new assignments, is that one of the first things you’ve got to sort through is how do you want to organize your team. Who do you want on the team? Who wants to be on the team. Right, it has to be a two-way street. And Shane decided he wanted to retire and he had a lot of years with the company. Gosh, he had 11 years with HP and before that he was at Compaq. And I said I understand, and good luck.