Lessons Learned from Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina

If Carly Fiorina were a man, would she still have her job as CEO of Hewlett-Packard? Some say no. Others say gender may have played a role in her taking the fall in 2005. But what does she say? And what can we learn from her experiences?

When she arrived at HP, she inherited a huge organization greatly lacking in rigorous process. In her autobiography, Tough Choices, Fiorina said the company couldn’t even figure out how many employees it had. There were 1,500 different Web sites providing internal training, and their customers were being called on by so many different sales people that they were confused about what products and services were actually available and appropriate for them.

During her almost six-year tenure, she led the company through a difficult re-structuring and then a controversial merger with Compaq Corporation which at the time was bitterly opposed by some of her own board members but today appears to have been successful.

Tough Choices, provides Fiorina’s view on life from her childhood through her career at AT&T and Lucent and finally at HP. I recently read her book and was pleasantly surprised to come away with some important lessons.

  1. Identify who in the company has the real power. You can’t always identify these people by title, but they can both help you and hurt you.

In her early days at AT&T, Fiorina recounts the horse trading that went on when managers had to rank their employees. She said “I couldn’t assume anymore that the boss always knew best.” At HP, it was two formerly quiet directors, Walter Hewlett and Susan Packard, who surprised her with their fierce opposition to the Compaq merger. She had failed to win them over, and although the merger went through, the dissent that it created was an important part of her ultimate downfall.

  1. Don’t ignore the fact that you’re a woman, and be prepared to deal with it. Fortune 500 women CEOs are still rare, and in many ways, Fiorina was naïve about the response to the announcement of her position. At her first press conference, she was surprised to get questions related to gender. When the editor of BusinessWeek came to interview her, the first question was, “Is that an Armani suit you’re wearing?” Articles described her as “flashy,” “glamorous,” and “diamond studded,”–adjectives probably never used to describe a male CEO.

She noticed that each time she let someone go at HP, people both inside and outside HP considered her difficult and controlling. In contrast, she watched as her counterpart male CEOs fired people and were hailed as decisive.

So what can women executives do? We all wish for the day when our gender won’t be an issue in a business discussion. But for now, we need to be prepared for it. Remember that, as a woman CEO, you are a role model for other women, keep a good sense of humor and be willing to poke back when appropriate.

  1. Have fun in the workplace. Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously at work and forget to laugh. I was impressed with the playful side that Fiorina presents in the book. When she was in a tough situation at AT&T, she recounts the importance of making it “fun.” She held contests and gave out silly prizes and rallied two teams by making a competition into a horse race. She even made a video tape by going to a stable, standing next to a horse and announcing the start of the race.

In another situation, she was dealing with the merger of Ascend Communications into Lucent and needed to gain the respect of the Ascend sales force, who perceived themselves as entrepreneurial and Lucent as stodgy. At a meeting of both sales forces, she wore cowboy boots under her suit and told the group, “I just want you to know that I’m not wearing flip-flops. I’m wearing Tony Lama cowboy boots, and we can kick ass with the best of ‘em.” Then she turned her back to the audience, unbuttoned her jacket and turned around showing off a bulge in her pants (socks borrowed from her husband) and said, “Our balls are as big as anyone’s in this room.” This brought down the house.

  1. It’s ok to cry…in private. In Tough Choices, I was surprised at how open Fiorina was in admitting her feelings — particularly fear, loneliness and sadness. I wonder if an autobiography written by a male CEO would have been so transparent. She writes about almost failing sales training at AT&T, bursting into tears after confronting another executive who was abusing members of her staff, and crying in the parking lot after a terrible dinner with a Boeing executive who repeatedly asked her about her husband although he wasn’t asking her male colleagues similar questions. Fiorina’s tears always came in private; I believe she would not have been taken as seriously as a leader if she had been more open.
  1. There is no substitution for hard work and mastering all the necessary skills. Fiorina had an amazing capacity to learn new information and to do what it takes to win a customer or complete a negotiation. When AT&T was split up, she was assigned to manage the organization responsible for monitoring the services and access charges—which became the company’s single largest expense. Although she did not have a technical background, she started by reading detailed blueprints to learn about circuit layouts. What she ultimately discovered was that AT&T was being routinely overcharged by the “Baby Bells.” She then instituted procedures to monitor all the bills and saved AT&T hundreds of millions of dollars.

Any CEO could benefit from a myriad of situations Carly Fiorina describes in her autobiography, Tough Choices. If you’ve read the book, share your thoughts and key takeaways in the review section below.
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