A recent Wired Magazine story chronicles the adventures of Carly Fiorina, who most will recall, was the celebrated female CEO of Hewlett-Packard for six years before being asked to resign.It also examines her newly released book, Tough Choices, in which Wired Magazine says Ms. Fiorina claims that she was unfairly scrutinized as a women in business and opposed by people who feared the big changes she needed to make at HP. She labels herself a change agent and talks a bit about what it takes to be a change agent.

It’s hard to criticize someone, of any sex, who has risen much further through the ranks than I’ll ever likely rise. However, let me try anyway. First, despite the implication by Wired that Ms. Fiorina may return to HP, especially with the recent massive fallout scandal of illegal obtainment of personal phone records of employees and board members of HP, I hardly think that Ms. Fiorina is a Steve Jobs. The great company founded by geniuses Bill Hewlett and David Packard is in a state similar to IBM in the mid 1980’s. And much of the reason for that is the responsibility of Ms. Fiorina.

During her tenure, no really interesting products came from HP, and the overall effect of her tenure was that HP lost market share and profitability. IBM made significant strides in the server and enterprise markets (as did Dell) while HP squandered a significant lead.

One of the “toughest choices” of being a change agent (and I am one, too) is that you have to make the right choice. Any blind fool can make a tough choice. That’s when courage is substituted for bravado. Normally, it is a man who makes these kinds of mistakes. Women are usually a bit reserved, a bit more cautious, a bit more indecisive - which is why we generally don’t want women in key crisis management roles (military, special operations, SWAT, etc). However, the only thing worse than a man being a bit too impulsive and making a wrong choice is a woman trying hard to act like a man and be tough.

Certainly, the most hideous choice that was done under Ms. Fiorina’s watch was the merger of Compaq and HP - a move that bewildered nearly every PC and market analysis at the time. No one could understand the point of it (much like the AOL and Time-Warner merger, or the more recent puzzling purchase of Skype by eBay). It looked to nearly everyone as if it was just something to do. The merger was justified with the typical claim of saving money by pooling resources - an idea which, in practice, rarely materializes as well as the marketers of these ideas hope. There was also talk about each company benefiting from access to each other’s resources - an auspicious claim that fooled no one. HP merging with Intel? Sure. HP merging with then upstart AMD? Not a bad idea. HP merging with Compaq? Huh? The only worse idea might have been to merge HP with Apple. Although, looking back, who knows? There might have been a crazy genius to that idea - but we were told by a pompous flag-waving Fiorina that the Compaq merger was the true crazy genius - a crazy genius that no one could understand. Although, it was understood entirely by Walter Hewlett, the son of Bill Hewlett, who vigorously and publicly opposed the idea. Thankfully, the Compaq didn’t destroy HP (although the decent name of Compaq is gone forever - except on the support section of HP’s website).

So, like many CEO’s, Fiorina was held accountable for events on her watch. But, as they say, herein lies the rub.

Fiorina doesn’t want to admit culpability, foolhardiness, or just the plain committing of a mistake. Instead, she essentially claims discrimination. Worse than that charge, though, is the reeking remark she was unfairly scrutinized as a woman. What is revealed by this comment is that this woman believes she should not be held to the same standards as a man. She feels that, because she was a woman, that she had to perform at some ambiguous higher standard. While I’m certain some folks feel that, I’m more reasonably certain that most folks feel that she should perform at the level of a CEO - regardless of sex - and make HP a profitable, dangerous monster that causes other companies to quake with fear. Or some close facsimile of that, instead of tired, bloated, unprofitable, sinking ship.

It’s sad to see a woman with such skill (read her biography) fall so easily into such trappings of blame. To hear a CEO use the word “unfair” sort of makes my skin crawl. Isn’t this something that school children are to learn - that the world is unfair? I would certainly think a smart businesswoman like Ms. Fiorina would understand that.

Technorati : HP, Hewlett-Packard, career, men, women, workplace

Posted in: Sexes