Meg Whitman Makes Inspiration Cliche

Put almost any CEO on a stage, ask for their secrets to success, and what you'll most likely hear is one cliche after the next.

Either they don't have an original thought, or if they do, they don't want to give it away. And so it went with Meg Whitman, billionaire corporate executive, former CEO of eBay Inc. (NASDAQ:EBAY), and the onetime political candidate who spent more money trying to be governor of California than anyone running a statewide race in all of history. Whitman was speaking on "innovation" at the Global Business Travel Association in Denver last week, where she told attendees that in an uncertain economy what they really need to do is "think outside the box."

Shopworn for decades, this phrase now only inspires people to eat at Taco Bell. Whitman used it two or three times, making me "think outside the bun" for a chalupa.

She also served up this cheese:

- "Mission really matters." - "Keep your mind open to possibilities." - "Focus, focus, focus." - "Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate." - "Culture is absolutely critical." - "We live in a world that is changing at lightning speed." - "Human talent is more critical than ever." - "Always be on the lookout for that serendipitous moment that you say "Ah-ha! Gosh, we should try that in our organization.'" - And, "The price of inaction is far greater than the price of making a mistake."

Clearly, Whitman is smarter and more creative than she lets on. She studied math, science and economics at Princeton. She got an MBA from Harvard. She did strategic planning for Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS) in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, she was an executive for DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble Co. (NYSE:PG) and Hasbro Inc. (NYSE:HAS).

She became CEO of eBay in 1998, and in 10 years grew the online auctioneer from 30 employees and $4 million in annual revenue to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in annual revenue. She serves on the boards of some of America's biggest companies, including Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE:HPQ). She also advises marquee Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

On top of all this, she is married to a neurosurgeon. You know the cliche, "This isn't brain surgery"? Well, in her family dinner-table discussions, it is.

She also wrote a book: "The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and in Life." And yet, when she spoke, she proved herself a master of the obvious with bromides like: "What we can do together, none of us can do alone." Gee, thanks coach.

The trade association was originally going to have Arnold Schwarzenegger speak, but thought better of it. Too bad. Schwarzenegger deserves an award for keeping the love-child he had with his housekeeper a complete secret until AFTER he was done being governor of California. He is a truly an inspiration to politicians everywhere.

"Politics is a blood sport in America today," Whitman said. "It's a shame because I think many good people won't run because they know what will happen under the 8,000 electron microscopes that come from politics."

Not if you don't have anything to hide.

Whitman's run for office exposed very little, since she is basically an all-right person with an apparently hackneyed take on the world.

She was accused of knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant for domestic help, although she claims she didn't do so knowingly.

She also came to a pricey settlement with an eBay employee who she allegedly shoved in a hissy fit. Hey, mood swings happen.

And she was criticized for serving briefly on board of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE:GS)--a potential conflict of interest since Goldman is deeply involved in public finance.

Whitman spent $178.5 million--including $144 million of her own loot--and then lost to a quirky, has-been Democrat long known as "Governor Moonbeam."

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, by contrast, spent $36.5 million, but he got a big boost from unions who feared Whitman's cliches about cutting state payrolls and reeling in soaring pensions for state government workers.

"In many ways California is a microcosm of the United States," Whitman said. "It's 13% of GDP, and most of the challenges that America faces hit California first.

"I thought that I could really make a difference," she said. "I thought that with 30 years in business, and 10 years in Silicon Valley, that I could bring a new approach to government....But I underestimated the challenge of going from business to politics."

All things considered, she said she would do it again.

"The price of inaction is far greater than the price of making a mistake," she repeated. "That was at work when I decided to run for governor of California."

Apparently, not all cliches are true. The price of not running for governor would have been about $144 million less.

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at or