Meg Whitman allowed her name briefly to stand for the CEO position at Disney last week.
“Oh, no, I thought, “not another Disney executive who knows nothing about contemporary culture! (Faithful readers of this blog will know that the cultural literacy of Disney leaders has been contemplated in these “pages before.)
Is this true? Is Ms. Whitman on or off the Cluetrain when it comes to culture? Its hard to tell. Biographical notes scattered over the net are not encouraging. Whitman sprinted through high school and this is where most of us begin our study of contemporary culture, especially popular movies and films. (A Martian looking at things “objectively would have to say, “yes, parents send their kids to high school for math and biology. The kids go for music and film.”)
Whitman then choose economics at Princeton, and, again, this probably took her away from a deep knowledge of her culture, not towards it. She was only 21 when she hit the Harvard Business School and I can tell you from my own experience there that this place is almost hermetically sealed against the possibility of cultural competence finding its way into the curriculum. To speak ill for a moment of an institution that is otherwise exemplary, HBS is high school all over again. Occasionally, in the classroom or my office I would raise some aspect of contemporary culture as a talking point and the student(s) would blink rapidly and I could hear a frenzy of search activity as they activated a base of knowledge and perspective that is never otherwise as part of their education. (Talk about Martian.)
So on balance there is a good chance that Meg Whitman is not a wunderkind when it comes to knowing the culture she would both ride and shape as Disney CEO.
Then I thought, “Who cares! Whitman has other qualities. This CEO gets responsiveness as few CEOS do.
When we hire people, they often don’t understand what eBay is. It takes six months for people to actually understand. Often your instincts coming from more traditional companies are wrong. We have to enable the community, we can’t direct them. Our community is people, not wallets. The people who end up not being as effective as they otherwise might be are ones that try to control and direct as opposed to listen and enable.
Q: Do you still get direct feedback yourself from the community?
A: Yeah. First of all, the community has my e-mail address. It’s email@example.com. I read all my own e-mail — anywhere from 100 to 500 e-mails a day — many of which are from the community. So I have a pretty good pulse of what’s happening out there. Also, at least a couple of times a week, I check the eBay discussion boards. I can get a real good pulse there. And I often sit in on Voice of the Customer groups.
Whitman says, “This company truly is built by the community of users. So what would Disney look like if it were run by someone who actually published their email address. It is of course utterly inconceivable to think of Eisner doing such a thing. By the sound of things, Eisner took some pains to avoid consulting his own executives, let alone the movie-going public.
When Whitman took eBay over, it was tech driven. Now its consumer driven. Of eBay’s nearly 5,000 employees, 2,400 are in customer support and 1,000 in technology. What a fine idea: vast network of email and phone intelligence gathering with which Disney assiduously listens to the shifting tides of taste and preference. What did people think of the picture they saw last night? Tell me what you think of your visit to Disneyworld right now! Who are you, where are you, whats happening right now? What, in short, would Disney look like if the CEO believed, “This company truly is built by the community of users?
Clearly, the ability to listen is not enough by itself. The CEO still has to know something about the culture to which he or she is listening. Otherwise, they are in the famous Balinese figure of speech, as water buffalo listening to a symphony. Or, to use the language of a Cambridge don: unless you have concept, the world is all percept.
Tomorrow: what a CEO would have to know to possess cultural literacy.
Hof, Robert D. 2003. Meg Whitman on eBays Self-Regulation. BusinessWeek. August 18, 2003.
Lashinsky, Adam. 2003. Meg and the Machine. Fortune Magazine. August 11, 2003
Mangalindan, Mylene and Joann S. Lublin. 2005. After Disney Try, EBays Whitman Sees Star Rise. Wall Street Journal. March 14, 2005.
McCracken, Grant. 2005. Disney: CEOs and the arcane art of predicting contemporary culture.