Kitchen Table Economics

First Job Fridays: Meg Whitman

Going to school prepares you for the real world, but there’s nothing like actual work experience to turn theory into reality. A first job exposes students to the practical challenges they need to apply their learning into problem-solving—and mature along the way.

That was certainly the case for Meg Whitman, the president and CEO of Hewlett Packard. She is the focus of this month’s First Job Friday feature on Information Station, where we highlight the first jobs of America’s top business leaders and explain how their earliest professional experiences laid the foundation for success.

Whitman landed her first job in Proctor and Gamble’s consumer marketing department. Her first assignment? On day one, Whitman’s supervisors left a simple note on her desk: “We’re developing a new shampoo product. We need you to figure out how big the hole in the bottle should be.” That’s right: After graduating from Harvard Business School, Whitman was told to find out the optimal dimensions of a new shampoo bottle. Fortunately, her schooling had prepared her intellectually. “I knew the theories,” explains Whitman. “I’d read the case studies. I’d generated brilliant solutions and business plans for hypothetical companies.”

But turning all of that into a practical solution wasn’t so straightforward. In Whitman’s words: “Forget the countless business-school case studies I’d read—this was my first real-world lesson in marketing.” And so she set about figuring “how big the hole in the bottle should be.” As Whitman recalls, “I read stacks of existing research, talked to consumers in focus groups and one-on-one interviews, and shadowed customers as they shopped. Like a sponge, I soaked in their needs, desires, and pet peeves. I listened intently to their stories about the way our products made them feel.”

That taught Whitman an important skill: Listening. “I had just learned my first and arguably most important lesson in consumer marketing: You do not know what you do not know,” Whitman now admits. “Don’t forget to listen to the people who have a stake in whatever you are about to do.”

She now applies that lesson as the leader of Hewlett Packard, one of America’s largest companies. Whitman explains it best: “[A]s CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, I listen carefully to our customers, partners, and employees as they navigate today’s ever-changing technology landscape.”

Decades (and a lot of listening) later, the 59-year-old business leader has that shampoo bottle to thank.