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Whitman: Political campaign gave her 'thick skin'

The HP CEO tells a leadership conference that focus is the most important component of strategy

Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman's bruising run for governor of California left her with a quality that she needs as she seeks to turn around the computer giant: very "thick skin," she told the Simmons Leadership Conference in Boston on Thursday.

Whitman's expensive effort to gain the governor's office was "the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was tremendously humbling," she said. But after the rough-and-tumble of politics, the mixed public reaction to her appointment as HP chief executive last September was easy to take, she told the audience at her keynote address. Thanks to her experience, "tough questions don't throw me off my game," she said.

Asked whether she would be drawn back into the political world -- Whitman has a long relationship with Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, who was her boss at Bain & Co. early in her career and could conceivably invite her to join his administration should he win in November -- she assured the audience that her commitment to HP is long-term.

"HP needs consistency more than anything else," she said, to spontaneous applause from a large crowd of HP employees seated together in the audience. "I must stay the course."

Whitman said that her first priority upon joining the company was to remove the uncertainty caused by the fact that it has had four chief executives in 10 years. That prompted a series of quick decisions, including undoing her predecessor's move to spin off the PC business.

As she moves the company forward, it is with a belief in the importance of focus in setting strategy.

"Strategy is about the art of exclusion, deciding what you're not going to do," Whitman said. "And finally, if something isn't working, then you've got to do something different. The cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake."

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