It can be easy to forget Meg Whitman has entrepreneurial roots.
Her net worth is nearly $2 billion. She was the Republican candidate for governor of California in 2010. And she's currently the president and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, one of the two companies--the other being HP Inc.--that Hewlett-Packard Company separated into last year under her leadership.
But there was a time--1998--when Whitman was president and CEO of a company with 30 employees and $4 million in revenue. That company was eBay. Under her leadership, it grew to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in revenue in 10 years. And it acquired Skype and PayPal before the potential of either was off-the-charts obvious.
These are just a few of the reasons Whitman's track record is worth remembering during National Small Business Week. In today's entrepreneurial landscape, giving inspiring speeches and raising capital are often venerated as veritable accomplishments. Whitman went much further. She walked the walk. She did the deed. She grew a small business into a large one.
And she chronicled how she did it, leaving a generation of aspirants with actionable tips they could apply to their own growth challenges. For example, in a 2006 interview with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, she shared this counterintuitive kernel of wisdom: "The tendency when you come in from outside is to prove yourself by finding what's going wrong," she said. As logical as that may seem, Whitman suggested taking the opposite approach: First, find out what's going right. In doing so, you'll learn what you don't need to change--not only in terms of operations or sales but also in terms of company culture.
Interestingly, Whitman repeated this piece of advice last year in another conversation with the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She said:
My advice, having done this a number of times, is to go into an organization and figure out what that company's doing right, and do more of it. You'll eventually get to your to-do list and to your fix-it list, but if you come in and just talk about what's going wrong, you will lose hearts and minds.
In other words, if you start by emphasizing positives, you'll have a better chance to rally people behind you.
Emphasizing positives is, of course, a markedly entrepreneurial trait. You can find story after story on Inc.com about founders who cite positivity as a virtue almost religious in its power to defeat adversity and spur resilience.
While Whitman's tenure at Hewlett-Packard has received its share of criticism, including an arguably veiled shot from Michael Dell, Whitman has continued to lead with an emphasis on positive possibilities--including her own. For instance, she didn't have to take the job at Hewlett-Packard. She obviously didn't need the money. But she took it anyway, because she believed her eBay experiences would help the company succeed under her watch. "I knew how things worked. I understood how Wall Street worked, and I think I was more effective than I would have otherwise been if this was my first rodeo," she told a group of Stanford grad students last year.
She also could have used her lack of experience in enterprise technology as an excuse to not take the job. But she refused to do so, insisting that important principles transcend business categories. "You know, I spend a fair amount of time with my CEO colleagues, and we laugh because business is business," she told the Stanford students. "Honestly, whether you're at Procter & Gamble, at Twitter, at HP, at Wells Fargo bank, at Caterpillar Tractor, the principles are exactly the same."
What was more, Hewlett-Packard was suffering from low morale after firing the previous three CEOs in a five-year span. Enter Whitman's positivity. "So we had to win hearts and minds of people, and get them back on the boat, and believing again in the future of HP," she told the Stanford students.
Whether Whitman will end up leading Hewlett Packard Enterprise to a glorious future, no one can predict. But what's clear is she hasn't backed down from a challenge--a challenge she had many plausible excuses to back down from. And that's a lesson any founder can appreciate.