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What will Whitman bring to HP?

Has a record as a leader, but lacks business-to-business enterprise experience

September 23, 2011 06:40 AM ET

Computerworld - Doubt may now be the default for assessing Hewlett-Packard's choice of CEOs.

After the ousting of Leo Apotheker and, before that, Mark Hurd and Carly Fiorina, HP's board looks shaky when it comes to appointing its top executive.

It is no surprise, then, that financial analysts were tough on HP's board during a conference call Thursday to hear why Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, was picked as HP's new leader. They wanted details about the selection process and the timeline behind the decision to replace Apotheker.

Ray Lane, HP's executive chairman, was on the defensive about the board's decision-making, and at one point, his frustration showed.

"It's just like open season to write about this board," Lane said. His defense about the board's CEO decision-making was that this wasn't the same board that fired Hurd, not with eight new members since then.

As Lane fought through the questions, it was Whitman who tried to move the financial analysts past the minutiae.

"In the end, the only thing that will rebuild the confidence in this company is delivering the results, and that's what I intend to do," said Whitman, forcefully and clearly.

Whitman transformed eBay from a small online auction company to a worldwide brand, and then moved on to pursue a bigger ambition: to become governor of California. In 2010, she won the Republican nomination for governor but lost the election.

Clearly, Whitman has credentials as a leader, but what will be scrutinized in the months ahead is whether she can move from running a consumer business, eBay, to running an enterprise-focused business.

"I think everybody [at HP] has to be hungry for somebody who can sound positive," said Charles House, a former 30-year veteran of HP and former corporate engineering director. He is now chancellor of Cogswell Polytechnical College.

But House was critical of the move to remove Apotheker.

"Here's a guy who puts [forth] a strategy that's incredible-sounding from my perspective and gets eviscerated, and that's sort of America in this day and age," House said. Whitman "fits the public persona of a Wall-Street-looking CEO."

N. Venkat Venkatraman, a professor of management at Boston University, questioned Whitman as a choice.

"Whitman brings her experience as a leader, no doubt," said Venkatraman. "But her experience with enterprise is minimal at best."

Venkatraman said Whitman's experience is in running a consumer-focused company. "While she may be a competent leader, there is nothing in her background that is particularly suited for the B2B space that HP is now repositioned [in]," he said.

But Gary Kern, CIO of MutualBank in Muncie, Ind., said that "HP needs something to revitalize how they look at their markets, and perhaps someone from a 'new media' type company will help with the thinking."

Whitman faces some big challenges in the immediate months ahead, particularly challenges such as deciding whether HP should proceed with its plans to spin off its PC business, as well as meeting investor and customer expectations.

"I'm not really sure what this means for HP," said Joe AbiDaoud, CIO at Toronto-based metals mining company HudBay Minerals Inc., in an email. HP's "strategy is somewhat in flux," he said. "I think she has to figure out in what businesses HP can be competitive and lay out a strategy."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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