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HP's Future And Past: Whitman Versus Apotheker, It's All In The Words

leo HP

What kind of talent are HP board members betting on to lead the company out of its post-Hurd, post-sex-scandal doldrums? 

Meg Whitman, appointed to the CEO role a few days ago at HP, was the CEO of eBay, and previously an exec at DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro. As of 2009, she spent about two years trying to become the Governor of California.

Leo Apotheker was in the role of CEO at HP for just 11 months. As the former CEO of SAP, some critics said his experience influenced his leadership at HP negatively; he controversially closed the company's webOS business, and mooted, by sell-off, its personal computer groups.

So far, Whitman has promised to stay the course and work with strategies initiated by Apotheker. Where will she make the biggest difference, then? Will her creative and political past affect her management abilities, and strategic vision? Can we guess, from their past public speeches, how these executives will steer the company?

First, check out the word cloud above, derived from a third quarter earnings call in 2011 that Apotheker used to talk about the state of HP and its finances, before radically overhauling the company. Apotheker's words seem calm, collected, and deliberate—while he mentioned HP by name 24 times, he also said the word "will" 24 times. Apart from the usual suspects of "the," "and," "it," and "we," (19 uses) it was one of his most used words (it doesn't show in the graphic above, because we wanted to highlight other common English word choices in his speech).

Of roughly equivalent importance in Apotheker's speech were the words "business" (18 uses), "autonomy" (15 uses) then "data" and "market" with 11 uses each. Apotheker is a businessman's businessman, it would seem, backing up his analysis with hard data. If the word "autonomy" stands out as an unusual one then you need to know Apotheker used the call to announce the acquisition of "Autonomy," a "leading enterprise information management software company" that specializes in "unstructured data." Here we see Leo's SAP business-to-business past coming into play, also highlighted by the fact he used the word "software" 14 times.

Among the interim chief's words there was little room for emotion. His words were all tightly constrained to the task at hand— "customers," and "information" made appearances but relevant if emotionally charged words like "difficult," "know," or "good" were rarities. This may be in keeping with the format of an earnings call, sure, but Apotheker did manage to pop himself prominently into the mix, saying "I" 16 times.

Compare this to Meg Whitman's earnings call from the fourth quarter of 2006 at eBay. She used more words, so the tallies don't compare exactly with Leo's speech, but during a call where she mentioned the company name eBay 44 times, she only said "I" 12 times. Instead, she kept referring to "our" items, processes, and tasks a staggering 54 times. Whitman, you may conclude, has a strong sense of working within a large team framework to deliver a business goal. "Business" and "users" are almost secondary, with just 22 and 19 uses, and the people who actually use eBay to buy stuff, the actual "buyers" and "merchants" without whom the site would founder are mentioned a mere 8 times each.

Whitman's phrases are freer flowing, personal, and enthusiastic, including phrases: "You might recall," "stellar growth," "now let me spend a few minutes," "I know many of you saw," and so on. Whitman attempts to include the audience in her speech. Apotheker uses more distant phrases: "Let me give you..." "just to be clear," "so you might ask..." and so on—he seems a little more schoolmasterly, with clear divisons between the HP side of the desk (with him in control) and the "everyone else" side of the desk.

For comparison, check out Whitman's words from June 8, 2010, the occasion when she beat Steve Poizner to win the Republican nomination for her seat.

Skipping the obvious words you'll note Whitman said "I" 11 times, "you" 11 times and "I'm" 9 times. "California" (8 times) "can" (9 times) and "will" (8 times)... True, Whitman is playing to a different crowd here in the political arena, but her turns of phrase remain inclusive and personal.

During his time in control of HP, Apotheker faced criticism for trying to turn HP into SAP, and centering on the firm's software skills at the expense of its highly successful hardware business, which is also highly consumer-facing. Meanwhile, Whitman's tenure at eBay included the incorporation of Skype (which lets people communicate) and previous work included work selling highly imaginative and emotional films, and maintaing one of the world's biggest toy brands.

This analysis is just a quick dig beneath the surface of two highly complex and successful executives, but it's illuminating nonetheless. There are already rumors that HP won't divest itself of its consumer-facing PC business with Whitman at the helm. 

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.