Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Power of Many" - Life Lessons from Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay

In preparation for attending a recent talk by Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and current candidate for Governor of California, I did a little background reading. Here are some of the highlights from what she has said or written that I feel are worth sharing:

“Try something. You can always recalibrate and adjust later.”

This reminds me of one my FAVORITE musical lines – from Sondheim’s “Move On” - I chose and my world was shaken, so what? The choice may have been mistaken. The choosing was not.

Focus on the good things can come from an action rather than worrying about what might go wrong.

She was on Goldman Sachs’ board but didn’t feel she had a lot of financial services expertise. She resigned Goldman’s board and joined P&G’s a few days later. She started her career with P&G as a brand assistant for “Toilet Products” including Head & Shoulders. Her first project was to recommend the size of the opening on the shampoo bottle. The answer came from the consumer. They wanted a smaller opening so that could “have more control in the shower.”

Talking about her days at eBay:

The regulation (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) was that if you do not police your site, you can’t be responsible. Her laywers, therefore, advised her not to police the site even though she knew that bootlegged copies of the “Cop Killer” videogame were being auctioned. Henry Schultz of Starbucks, who was an eBay board member, advised her as follows: “Don’t let the lawyers run your company.” I believe that advice came from Schultz; in any case, it’s good advice. Nonetheless, the seminal question that defined eBay going forward did come from Schultz and was as follows: “What do you want the character of your company to be?”

Good question, and the one that every marketer should ask himself. This was a question I asked The California Travel and Tourism Commission, when I worked with them. In this case, the question was about who their audience was. Was it the hospitality industry, tourists, advertisers… Their website did not have a voice. Their printed materials came from Sunset Custom Publishing. I recommended that they look to Sunset for their editorial voice.

This is also one of the key questions a marketer should ask when developing a social media strategy. What is being said about me now? What do I want my personality or character to be? What role do I want to play? Advisor? Helper? Expert? Advocate? Access to inside info and deals?



Meg graduated from Harvard Business School (HBS) in 1979. While this was not the trailblazer generation of female MBAs, women were definitely in the minority. When she joined P&G, she was one of perhaps four women in a class of one hundred. When she started, women were not authorized to travel for business because it was not deemed to be safe. She and her female colleagues got this policy changed!

Sunday night, I saw a film called “Over-Under, Sideways-Down” at the Anthology Film Archives here in New York. The film was produced and directed by Steve Wax, one of the founders of Campfire Media and a client of mine. It was set in 1979, which was obvious from the attire, cars, technology and mindset. When the wife of the protagonist suggests that she get a job as pursuit of a new job seemed fruitless, the husband rejected the idea out of hand. “Who would take care of the children,” he bellowed. “They need their mother.” The film, by the way, which was dated in terms of historic setting, rang completely true and relevant in the context of the economic situation in Detroit, middle-America, and even here in NYC. It was actually quite depressing in its claustrophobic tone.


Meg’s advice: “Always deliver the results.”

“If you are always in the neighborhood of good results, you will always get the credit.”

This last bit of advice came from Mitt Romney, one of her mentors from their days at P&G. (Gives some insight into her choice to go into politics.)


At eBay, she could gauge the state of her eBay community based on the number of emails she received in a day. She had a one-to-one dialog with her consumer base. If there were 200 emails, all was well. If 5,000… well, there was a problem that was pretty easy to identify by scanning a few email headers. Hence, her overriding theme: “The Power of Many,” which is the title of her book, subtitled, “Values for Success in Business and in Life.”

1 comment:

CampfireSteve said...

Hey, nice piece. I was the Producer of Over-Under, Sideways-Down, and a co-director. Nonetheless I think I am being objective when I say the film is actually quite inspiring! We'll have it out on DVD towards the end of the year. It needs to see the light of day again.