This is the story as I heard it: Meg Whitman, then the CEO of eBay, was being walked through the user experience design of an early version of its online auction service. In other words, she literally went through the process of trying to put an item up for bid, and saw how many steps and false starts you had walk through.
“Fix it,” she reportedly said in an agitated voice to a group of people standing around her. “Just fix it!”
Following the announcement late Tuesday that Whitman will step down as CEO of HP Enterprise (HPE), it’s tempting to use “just fix it!” to sum up her six-year tenure. She is the woman who finally did what no other leader at the company had dared to do before her: wave good-bye to the historically money-making imaging and printing division and getting super-focused on the IT infrastructure segment.
As part of that transition, Whitman oversaw a nearly unthinkable change to what had been the decades-old HP brand name, the layoff of thousands and a few expensive acquisitions. Having fixed things that weren’t working, though, it’s more telling to note what Whitman didn’t do: invent.
Longtime HP watchers may remember that when Whitman’s predecessor Carly Fiorina first took the helm, one of her first moves was the introduction of “invent” as the company’s tagline. It was supposed to harken back to the old days of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard working in that legendary garage while simultaneously placing an emphasis on the future. And as much as Fiorina was roundly criticized for merging with Compaq, her version of HP saw launch after launch, including an ill-fated early attempt to create a “BlackBerry killer” before the iPhone was even conceived.
It’s difficult to point to much in the brief life of HPE under Whitman that comes even close to matching that level of ambition. The company has followed all the right trends, focusing on servers and networking equipment to support hybrid cloud environments, the Internet of Things and so on. The closest we’ve seen to real innovation came recently, when HPE said the artificial intelligence technology it gained through the acquisition of flash storage firm Nimble might allow predictive maintenance in data centers.
Even if it makes the best data center equipment in the world, however, there’s not much in the HPE portfolio to generate excitement beyond IT departments. In fact, the sell-off of its applications business to Micro Focus may have pleased investors but could wind up relegating HPE to little more than enterprise “plumbing.”
The big thing that changed amid Whitman’s downsizing, cost-cutting and other tactics was the coalescing of marketing, sales and other departments as teams in pursuit of digital transformation. To achieve real growth, HPE may need to invent something — anything — that will capture the hearts and minds of CMOs and heads of sales as it once did CIOs. (The appointment of Antonio Neri, a 20-year veteran of the firm, as Whitman’s replacement suggests this is unlikely, however.)
It’s worth noting, of course, that not too long ago Whitman was rumored to be one the main contenders to replace Travis Kalanick as the CEO of Uber. That was a job that would have required even more “fixing” than HPE, but she might have been an interesting choice. This is a leader who has proven how well she can keep things moving. The mission for HPE now is to find somewhere to go it’s never gone before.
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