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What I find interesting is the stories that aren’t widely known about top executives. Most aren’t that flattering and HP’s CEOs over the last decade didn’t exactly set the bar for behavior or tenure. But Meg Whitman is turning out to be an exception.
Instead of a glowing public face with a cesspool of questionable material flowing underneath, Whitman looks better when you talk to insiders about her performance. The contrast between her and Carly Fiorina, for instance, is actually kind of fascinating. Fiorina wanted to make sure she was seen as a superstar CEO and really wasn’t, while Whitman may actually be a bitter fit for the image Fiorina created, but she clearly isn’t focused on image.
HP’s performance is the true metric and it has consistently surprised on the upside with Whitman, and almost as consistently HP missed expectations with Fiorina. Have I confused you yet? Let me work a bit harder.
External vs. Internal Impression
Some industry observers might feel that Whitman’s background isn’t consistent with HP’s business, and when she presents it is only as a CEO of an umbrella company. Several times she has either had others supplement her or gives such a high level talk that her knowledge of how things work isn’t showcased. At any rate she isn’t a passionate speaker. I’ve never seen her make a mistake but then again her talks tend to be relatively safe which likely adds to this impression. And this makes up most of her public face.
Now this is in sharp contrast to how people perceive her inside HP. I’ve heard from a variety of executives that while she clearly didn’t know HP when she started, she has done an impressive job learning the company. She now asks challenging questions, provides meaningful direction and has made material changes. And, most important, she has been very effective at weeding out a few of the high level problem executives.
What I think is particularly fascinating is that she has backed some incredibly capable people in the firm. For instance, Tracy Keogh runs HP’s HR department and this isn’t like any HR department you are likely to see in any other large company.
The focus, with Whitman’s blessings and outright encouragement, is on making employees more effective, getting the people out of the way that block advancement, and in ensuring that HP is a great place to work. Under her direction HP eliminated Forced Ranking, a nasty blight on most tech companies and highlighted as one of the primary reasons Microsoft went into decline. HP has improved employee awards and recognition, instituted an HP University and manager training to ensure employees remained competitive, and implemented a balanced work at home policy.
Prior to Whitman and Keogh employees were pounded with “The HP Way” any time they wanted to do something different, innovative or at all provocative. Under Whitman and Keogh “The HP Way” has been redrafted to emulate the Marine’s Moto “Adapt and Overcome” and employees are expected to escalate in 24 hours and execute in 48. One example given was of an individual hired to run a software unit. The staffer generated waves of complaints as they struggled to “Adapt and Overcome” and historically would have been fired. But under Whitman the folks that generated the complaints were dealt with because they were impediments to getting the job done. (I can think of folks in a variety of tech companies, including myself years ago, and speculate that we’d all agree that, under the definition of “heaven,” you would find a policy like this.)
Notice I’m not covering the folks she has hand-selected for other areas. This isn’t because they aren’t impressive – they are – it is because if HR does a great job, then that assures the quality of all of the employees including the leaders. Or, put differently, if HR is solid every other major position has to be and, at HP, HR is as solid as it gets.
Wrapping Up: Personal Bias
Now this is just a little of what drives Whitman’s very high regard in the company. But I must stop and point out a personal bias. You see I’ve often felt that employees should come first because they face the customer and you can’t have a customer first policy if you mistreat your employees. It just won’t work. Disgruntled employees make for really bad advocates. Any CEO that puts employees first, that works to make life in their company less stressful and focuses on making employees more productive by giving them the tools they ask for would get my vote. And thus going in Whitman and Keogh have my support and vote.
In the end, in a world where often employees seem to come last, it is great so see a firm working so hard to put theirs first.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.