Meg Whitman is a three-time tech CEO (think: she’s been in charge of eBay, HP, and now, Quibi). So she’s had experience leading a team through times of crisis before. This week, she shared how her past experiences have made her a “situational” leader. And how she’s applying those lessons to launching a new business during COVID-19.
She told us about her leadership style in times of crisis, how she learned an unfamiliar skill set, and what she does to manage a team through uncertainty.
On Leadership in Crisis
Carly: What are you like in a stressful situation? How do you react when stressed?
Meg: I dive in really deep, because I think leadership in crisis is about getting down into the trenches. I actually slept at eBay for over a month... The only thing I could do was to lead by being there, lead by taking the temperature of the engineers, lead by making sure all of our partners were on board to help us.
…You know, people have different leadership styles. For my leadership style, it was absolutely the only thing to do because there's no substitute for being there.
On Learning A New Skill Set
Danielle: You mentioned earlier that you've become a much more technically proficient leader. Carly and I do not have a tech background. We certainly understand what it's like to check in with engineers and show up and show support without necessarily knowing the ins and outs of what they're talking about. How did you start to dive into that skill set? I think for a lot of people, it can be intimidating.
Meg: By doing it. So it was really being there and asking questions. I think those of us who do not have a technology background, you just have to ask questions. And when I first started asking questions I thought, "Ugh, they're just going to think I'm not smart," or, you know, "What the heck am I doing here if I can't add value from a tech perspective?" …and so I just learned by asking questions and by doing. It was completely on-the-job training.
On Managing Teams Through Change
Danielle: I want to talk about when you took over as CEO of HP. It was a struggling company. And you come in and you know that you need to turn things around. How do you walk into an environment like that and not scare people?
Meg: When you come into a situation like that, your instinct is to find everything that's wrong, point that out, and try to fix it. Because that's what you think is going to help the company the most. Actually, that instinct is, in my view, wrong. What you need to figure out is what is the company or the organization doing well, and how do you get them to do more of it?
...No one wants to feel criticized. No one wants to have all the different things that could be improved pointed out right at the beginning….Because if I'd come in and said, "This is wrong and this is wrong, we should have fixed this, and why are you doing this, and I can't even believe this," you just don't capture the hearts of people. To do more of what's working is a lot easier and a lot faster than to fix the things that are wrong.
“Resilience… it’s like a muscle, which means you build it.”
"Untame the companies."
Ambassador Susan Rice: “If you're not able to make the people who you're leading feel valued and feel like their input matters then you're going to lose them.”