Working for a hard-driving boss can play havoc with your personal life and your ego. Most folks prefer the softer, gentler breed. But for one entrepreneur, working under the no-nonsense Meg Whitman not just once, but on three separate occasions, turned out to be a blessing.
For four years in the 1990s, Jules Pieri, founder and CEO of product-launch platform The Grommet, worked as a “utility player” for Whitman, at Keds, Stride Rite, and Playskool. At Whitman’s behest, Pieri pitched in wherever she was needed: troubleshooting, managing licenses, working on product strategy and on store and brand redesigns. “Having Meg land on my head as my boss didn’t feel lucky at first because she is kind of tough,” says Pieri of the current Hewlett-Packard and former Ebay CEO. Soon, though, she embraced Whitman as a mentor. “My career plan was, ‘Work for Meg,’ because she was so great to work for,” says Pieri, who shares some of the wisdom she picked up from Whitman.
Here are the five best leadership and management lessons Pieri learned from one of the most powerful female CEOs in America:
1. Focus solely on the goal.
Although Whitman ran for governor of California, “she is an apolitical person when it comes to the job,” Pieri says. At the time, Whitman also “didn’t worry much about her career,” Pieri says. Her sole concern was aligning people around a goal and using bold strokes to achieve it.
2. Be brutally honest.
During their first meeting, Whitman asked Pieri to list the things Keds was good at and to assign a grade to each. “I was saying A’s and B’s, and she was saying, ‘No, those are C’s, maybe D’s,’” says Pieri. But when Whitman expressed such criticisms she also took responsibility for them. And when things screwed up, “She always asked, ‘What did we learn?’”
3. Establish clarity with your reports.
Whitman taught Pieri a practice called “blank-sliding” in which they sat down together at the beginning of each project and created, on paper, a set of “slides” representing the hypothetical presentation they might give at the project’s end. Each slide had a title, representing a step or goal they envisioned Pieri accomplishing, but no details, which left her options open for how to accomplish them. When Pieri judged a step or goal needed to change, she and Whitman reviewed the slides. “That process realigned us,” says Pieri.
4. Recognize credit repeatedly.
When someone--no matter how junior--came up with what Whitman considered a good idea, she would repeat it with that person’s name: “Well, Henry said….” And in meetings and conversations thereafter, she made sure to associate the idea with Henry. “What’s great is that it makes Henry want to have another idea and Jane want to have an idea like Henry’s,” says Pieri. She was gratified that Whitman repeatedly credited her with the smart decision to license Looney Tunes at Keds: a move former Disney executive Whitman had originally opposed.
5. Show your humanity.
Whitman “laughed a ton in meetings,” says Pieri. “That was so great.”