Meg Whitman


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? It’s 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 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 it’s 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, what’s 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 eBay’s 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, EBay’s Whitman Sees Star Rise. Wall Street Journal. March 14, 2005.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Disney: CEOs and the arcane art of predicting contemporary culture.

12 thoughts on “Meg Whitman

  1. steve

    Isn’t this a bit of the age-old tension between customer research and creative inspiration? Sometimes it’s good to let user advice shape the design of artifacts, but at other times it leads to unimaginative extrapolations from what already exists because users don’t understand the creative possiblities of the medium (whatever it is).

    Designers (of all kinds of things, including movies and therme parks) seem to function on a continuum from slavish focus-grouping to slavish obedience to the inner muse. I can point to examples where something turned out to be designed too much in one way or the other, but I don’t know of any general, applicable guidelines to tell you ahead of time how much to listen to users.

  2. Perry Thompson

    Open letter to Meg Whitman:

    We have a problem, you and I. It concerns a company called eBay — you probably know the name.

    Will you please, Ms. Whitman, email me directly at I promise to be brief (you’re busy, and so am I)and to give you some information you need to know concerning eBay.

    Perry Thompson, President
    R.D.R. Enterprises, Inc.

  3. justin ramirez

    i am doing aproject on you and i need some infoso i was wnonderingif you could send me like have where you went to school and what was the last school you went to like hight school& awardsthat EBay got (the companey) so yeah i need your help i wish you could help

  4. Dave Curtis

    Dear Ms. Whitman-

    I hope you have the opportunity to read this note and email me at the address referenced above. I was an avid eBayer until I found out that your “Protection PRogram” really only protects the deceitful seller and not the careful and trustful buyer. Very unfortunate! I had heard this from many others but didn’t believe until it happened to me. Live and learn, I think you should be aware of what’s happeingin inthe ranks! It certainly feels like someone sure is protecting their bonus!!

    Sincerely- davec810

  5. Max d'Estries

    Dear Ms. Whitman,

    I read an article today in the Arizona Republic pointing out your office arrangement (cubicle). I applaud you for this simple but effective means of staying in touch with your company. I have spent many years in a cubicle in the electronics industry while ALL management were in offices and top executives in plush intimidating surroundings. It’s funny that they had an open door policy.
    A true open door policy does not work in this environment. There were obvious issues that should have been communicated to the executive branch of the company that did not because of having to go to the OFFICE. I am not a shy person but was unwilling to enter because the leaders of our company put themselves above the rest which made it difficult to speak or even reason with them. Basically they were so out of touch that it would takes days to even begin to bring them up to speed with what was actually going wrong.
    I since left the industry searching for another path and now I’m in the mortgage business. We’ll see how this works. It’s a far leap from product management or engineering.
    Unfortunately the company I speak of is downsizing and experiencing numerous issues. I am saddened by this as I do not find pleasure in seeing a company I work or worked for do poorly. I just wish the officers of that company would take down the walls as you have done.
    I wish you continued success and happiness.

    Thanks You,
    Max d’Estries

  6. Catherine Braillon

    Dear Ms Whitman,

    I watched recently a program on French television about Ebay and your professional evolution.
    I have been interested in your personal image and wearing, but I must say that my job is Personal Image Consultant in France. I work with French television (tf1 web site), private schools and private persons, and my job is to take out the best of each person, taking care of his personal and professional specificities.
    If you would accept to meet me, I would be happy to take car of your image and give you all advices you need to get a better appearence.
    I would be honored to have an answer from you, you may visit my web site and contact me by the way.
    I than you very much in advance for your attention,
    Sincerely yours,
    Catherine Braillon.

  7. Caroline Dubois

    Dear Mrs Whitman,

    Since the reading of an article about you and other CEO’s of our planet in a Belgian magazine, I was wondering if I could help you up there.
    I am a life coach, I help golfers improve their mental game, I also help anybody who asks for it. Some people at your level need some guidance to manage stress or other personal problems. Some people have plane phobias and need to travel a lot. Most people at your level might be embarassed to seek help. So here I am.
    I am ambitious to help people with difficult cases anything from eating disorders to suppress any phobias. I also work by phone with an extraordinary method called EFT.
    I have great successes, read the testimonials on my website
    I would be happy to help and grateful if you only read this.
    Best wishes for ebay and yourself !
    Caroline Dubois

  8. wanda schad

    Dear Meg,
    I would also like to speak with you (I see you have quite a list before me!) I too am having a little trouble with ebay. I have been contacting ebay for the last 2 1/2 to 3 months regarding some questions. I am aware that I do not bring your company tons of money but, that should not be any reason to ignore (of course this is all done through emails!) even the smallest investor. The most annoying thing is that it is only one question this entire time! All other questions were never answered or acknowledged.


  9. kai lun cheung

    Dear Mrs Whitma,
    I did bring your company a lot of money in the past few years. Your staff just setting me up!!. I have to state clearly firstly, i did not sell any fakes. I sold OEM products, which are similar to some brand. However I did ask your hong Kong Trust and Safty that are those phone eligible to sell on ebay. They said “yes”, once I never said it is “Iphone” on those listing. but, now, my accounts was indefinitely suspended, paypal account was limited as well. WHo’s worng? who signal me wrong? I got many employee to fee and they have their family to feed. YOur staff just stick on your ” black box” rule. How can I appeal? IS this case fair to me? I just listened to your staff and getting such bad ending. WHo will trust your wordings again? If you state clearly, no any innocent victim again.

    thank you

  10. john kountz

    Open letter to Meg Whitman

    Today I received the second eBay Listing violation in two weeks. This one terminated my remaining auctions, reason — we displayed the PCGS value prices for coins we are selling. The coins in question were all PCGS Mint State graded coins. During the last year, we have sold in excess of $335,000 in fine rare gold coins. Your business, eBay, received $20,000 in payment for these sales, or 6% of gross receipts.

    We’ve decided to close our store. That’s unfortunate for eBay employees and Share Holders, as we have recently received a 4x capital injection that will drive our sales four times higher. If you are wondering why your stock is tanking, you have no further than this message to wonder why.


  11. kathy green

    i have recently opened an account on ebay and paypal i have done everything by the book wih no problems i sold my first item and recieved payment from paypal i sold 3 more items and paypal put my acount on hold? they instucted me to mail items and instll tracking numbers i did this. then i called ebay and the lady i talked to said she wuld email me with item numbers and paypal id numbers with paypal phone number to call and give numbers toand they would let me have my funds i tryed this and still would not give me my funds and i was called sir 12 times in both conversations when i told them constantly i was female ebay says to mail items when u recieve paymnt i never recieved money and had to mail items before i got my funds i will be contacing he F.T.C because of misleading info and rippoff report .com to place a complaint against both your companys ive been on the phone for 4 days trying to get things done and got nowhere

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