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Five Lessons from Meg Whitman

Last Friday’s keynote session of the Colorado Technology Association’s Women in Tech Conference, a mountainside chat with Meg Whitman, took the audience on a journey inside her remarkable life and career.

Whitman shared a series of stories about her posts at Procter & Gamble, Bain and Walt Disney, her legendary role at eBay and her current role as president and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Facilitated by Robin Hickenlooper, Liberty Media VP and Colorado’s first lady, the conversation revealed life lessons that Whitman credits for her success. Here are five key takeaways for tech professionals at every stage of their careers:

Get Ready

Whitman’s impeccable credentials, which include a Harvard MBA, reflect her strong belief in getting the best education and preparation possible. “I’m a big believer in getting well trained. Go to the best possible university and best possible company. It’s all about how much you can learn and how fast.”

Boldly Go

Whitman shared the experience of getting a call from Pierre Omidyar, the young founder of eBay. At the time, eBay had a couple of dozen employees and a strange black and white “Auction Web site” – not exactly the harbinger of the online powerhouse eBay would become. “What I saw behind the concept was something remarkable: real features and functions with an emotional connection – a winner.” Whitman took a risk and “a huge pay cut,” uprooting her husband and family for the opportunity to grow the startup.

Watch and Listen

“At eBay, I did a lot of listening to our team and our community of users. Our company was growing at a 70 percent compound growth rate so it was important to be inclusive and collaborative.” eBay became one of the leading sellers of used cars by paying attention to a customer who first listed a car for sale. “Had we been in a conference room of MBAs it would never have occurred to us to sell used cars. Watch, listen and stay close (to your customers).”

Head and Heart

A strong believer in team and culture, Whitman reminded the audience of the importance of analytics and connections. “Those of us who were trained in business use our left brain. But when you watch politicians, they speak to the right brain. It’s all about the stories they tell. To capture hearts and minds, you have to tell stories.”

Fail Forward

Whitman was fired from a position early in her career for not reducing the company’s debt quickly enough. “I was devastated. You have to pull up your socks and move forward.” The lesson learned? Relentlessly manage your P&L. Later in her career, Whitman’s foray into California politics toughened her up. “I underestimated the challenges of going from business to being a candidate.  Politics is a full-on combat sport. I was attacked in every corner. As a result, I am tough as nails now. It made me a better CEO.”