Leadership by Geoff Colvin

For Whitman, HP is the next best thing to running California

September 22, 2011: 5:05 PM ET

Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman is the new CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). Not interim chief. This is Whitman's for-real next big gig.

And it is big indeed, given that the storied Silicon Valley company has lurched from chief to chief to chief ever since the board, in 1999, eased out Lew Platt and recruited Carly Fiorina from Lucent (ALU).

Fiorina was the first No. 1 on the Fortune Most Powerful Women list, at the top from 1998 to 2004. Who grabbed the MPW crown from Fiorina? Whitman, when she was CEO of eBay (EBAY).

H-P's board fired Fiorina in early 2005 and has had a thing about women since. In 2006 came the removal of HP board chair Pattie Dunn. Then Mark Hurd, Fiorina's CEO successor, got into trouble over his relationship with a female HP consultant. With Hurd's 2010 ouster came new chief Leo Apotheker from SAP (SAP)--and an influx of women to fill board seats and help clean up the mess.

Whitman, 55, was one of those new HP directors, fresh off her defeat in the California governor race. I hear that Whitman, who is also on the Procter & Gamble (PG) board, was key during the past couple of months as the board assessed Apotheker's poor performance. Having taken a part-time gig at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers last spring, to test her venture-capital chops, Whitman was available to step up. And ready. Fellow HP board member--and Kleiner partner--Ray Lane and another well-known VC, Marc Andreessen, apparently were critical in getting consensus among the directors.

Debate will rage about whether Whitman is right for the job. After building eBay from a startup to a Fortune 500 company, she stumbled toward the end of her CEO run.

The other question: Why would Whitman take this very difficult  job? Having spent many days with Whitman (reporting Fortune cover stories about her in 2004 and 2009), I have a sense: A corporate strategist and manager to the core, she was trained at P&G and Disney (DIS) and Bain Consulting, pre-eBay, and has long loved a giant management challenge. Also, having already gotten her head around the idea of running California, she probably didn't think the H-P challenge is as daunting as other execs might.

So, now Meg Whitman is in charge of California's second-largest company--behind Chevron (CVX). And HP is, six years after Carly, once again the largest Fortune 500 company led by a woman.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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