Carly Fiorina's Tough Choices

Last Thursday I sat down with Carly Fiorina for a video interview in our San Francisco studio. She has been on a tour for two weeks promoting her book, Tough Choices, and taking advantage of the occasion to defend her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

Last Thursday I sat down with Carly Fiorina for a video interview in our San Francisco studio. She has been on a tour for two weeks promoting her book, Tough Choices, and taking advantage of the occasion to defend her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. The timing of her book's publication has been fortuitous. HP is reeling from a scandal, exposing its dysfunctonal board of directors, and at the same time has been posting good financials and assuming the number one position in PC sales, overtaking Dell. Fiorina can claim some credit for HP's current success, but Hurd gets the credit for bringing the tougher operational focus to HP's executive suite required to capitalize on the market opportunities.


Fiorina's book was a surprise to me. I expected a dry defense of her job performance and sound bytes on management and leadership. Instead, it was an authentic memoir, offering a glimpse into the people, especially her parents, and experiences that shaped Fiorina in her rise through the ranks to become CEO of a storied Silicon Valley company. The second half of the book, focusing on HP, is more cloudy and defensive, as expected, and less generous to the cast of characters than the first part.

In an interview with the Wharton School that asks some good questions, Fiorina defines the qualities of a leader:

The role of a leader is to see possibilities in people and in circumstances and to see both danger and opportunity before others do. This, to me, is all about helping people see things that they maybe can't quite see yet and then helping them deal with it.  

I asked Fiorina, in light of her definition of a leader, why she took the HP job, despite the warning signs she chronicled in the book covering the six months she interviewed and was courted for the job. It was an opportunity, as a risk-taker, she could not resist.

In the Wharton interview Fiorina also offered her take on the hostility that was directed at her at HP:

Some of that comes with the territory. I was asked to lead the transformation of an iconic company with a mythic set of founders and an incredibly ingrained culture. I was an outsider in every conceivable way, outside the Valley, outside the industry, not from an engineering background. All of those things were going to create controversy and hostility. I represented change in a very personal manifestation, and there were tough, tough things that had to be done to undertake that transformation. I accept that the roughly 35,000 people who lost their jobs under my tenure don't like me. It's normal that they wouldn't like me.

Not being the most liked person on the planet goes with the territory. The gender issue and media spotlight were distractions. She wrote, "After striving my entire career to be judged by my results and my decisions, the coverage of my gender, my appearance and perceptions of my personality would outweigh anything else."

The issue isn't whether Fiorina was loved by the troops or a victim of gender bias. The bottom line is whether she could marshall the troops to effect the changes needed to turn the HP battleship around. As an outsider with a sales and marketing background coming into a recalcitrant corporate culture, and heralded as the most powerful woman in business, Fiorina wasn't given the benefit of the doubt when it came to making massive changes. Nor did she seem to be able to surround herself with the key talent needed to keep the HP battleship from listing.

In the book, she writes:

"Every quarter we missed was painful. Each time we did so, the change warriors would lose courage. Each time, those who resisted change gained strength. Each time, I had to recommit the organization to the path we were on, reassure people that we could accomplish what we attempted, and reiterate my passion and enthusiaum for our aspirations and our potential."  

In Joe Nocera's review ($) of Tough Choices in the New York Times, he quotes Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management, who characterized Fiorina's tenure as "a reign of terror and poor performance." During our interview, Fiorina called Sonnenfeld's quote histrionic. The "reign of terror" is overboard, but there is some truth to poor performance, despite Fiorina's counter-arguments.

I asked Professor Sonnenfeld to provide more color of his tough characterization of Fiorina's tenure. He cited her intolerance of dissent and ease in blaming others for strategic missteps, which he said he gleaned first hand from senior, inside sources as as well as published sources. As examples of creating a climate of fear, Sonnefeld cited a failed European strategy that led to scapegoating and firings; her treatment of Walter Hewlett during the Compaq and the threatened removal of underwriting business by Deutschebank during the Compaq acquisition battle.  

If Sonnenfeld and Fiorina got together to debate her performance, I am sure she would present a vigorous defense for each accusation. In an environment, beset by contoversy, such as the contentious battle over the Compaq merger and the dysfunctional board, she set high expectations for performance for  herself and the company. Not meeting or exceeding those goals were the justification to bring her down. During the five and half years she ran HP, the stock declined 50 percent.

I remember Fiorina's speeches at tech conferences. They were polished rhetorical pitches, and you always got the feeling you were being sold. She is still a smooth saleswoman, as I learned while interviewing her about her book. I expect a wiser Carly Fiorina to surface in a high profile position sooner than later, and this time she should have a more finely tuned sensitivity to the dangers and opportunities presented to her.


  Watch the video interview

Photos: Marianne Wilman 

Editorial standards