When Meg Whitman took the top job at HP it was only 10 months after her unsuccessful run for governor of California. That experience, she said, may well have been the best training she could have received for running HP.
"What I learned running for governor is I have got a much thicker skin," said Whitman, reflecting on the turmoil she faced when she took the helm at HP.
"I just persevered through the difficulties [at HP] in a way that I might not have had I not run for governor. Everything seemed relatively minor compared to the attacks that one undergoes as a politician."
Before Whitman became CEO, HP was facing attacks of its own from customers, partners and investors who were rattled by what they saw as an uncertain future for the once-legendary Silicon Valley company. Enter Whitman with a sense of "calm" and a feeling that "it was going to be OK, we are going to figure it out" even in the most troublesome times.
Whitman moved quickly to restore partner and investor confidence, recommitting to HP's PC business and its IT product portfolio. Then she put together a five-year plan that she and the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company have followed steadfastly from year one, which was diagnosis and building a foundation; to year two, which was fix and rebuild; to the current year, which is recovery and expansion. Fiscal year 2015 will be acceleration and 2016 will cement HP as an industry-leading company.
The ability to persevere wasn't the only thing Whitman learned from her run for governor. She said her experience in politics also taught her to appeal to people's hearts -- not just their minds.
"When you are communicating to big groups of people it is not the facts, it is not the figures, it is not the left brain -- it's the right brain," said Whitman. "It is the stories you tell and how you reach in and grab their heart. So we tell a lot of stories. Internally, we tell the good stories: when did we win and what went well. And then we tell the not-so-good stories. And people learn more from their failures than they do from their successes."
At every company-wide meeting, Whitman said she makes sure that she focuses not just on the "terrific things" that HP has done to accelerate the turnaround, but also where "we dropped the ball" and did not live up to expectations. "No one likes to be the poster child for the story that didn't work out as well," she said. "But that has helped the company because no one wants to be that person."
Whitman said she applied the experience of running for governor directly to the battle to win back the confidence of HP partners and move the conversation from explanations about HP's future to growing the business together.
"In politics, when you are explaining you are losing," she said. "And it is like that with the channel. When you are explaining, you are losing. When you are talking about how we are going to grow the business together, what the opportunities are in the market, what is the innovative technology, that is when you are winning. That is a big difference."
Of course, step one for Whitman after losing the governor's race was the decision to take on the Herculean task of turning around HP.
"When you have a failure there is a real tendency to sort of crawl into the cave and not come back out; I thought about that," she said, laughing. "When things don't work out you just have to pick yourself up and get back on the horse."
Getting back on the horse is one thing. But taking on the task of turning around one of America's most treasured corporate institutions is another thing entirely.
Whitman doesn't look at it that way. She said it is a "privilege" to lead HP. "This is a great company with an incredible history, with a really high-quality set of values," she said. "The core of this company is terrific. So it has been a privilege and it has been great fun."