Former CEO of HP Speaks on Leadership and Choices

After being largely removed from the public eye since her dismissal from HP, Carly Fiorina resurfaces at Harvard to discuss lessons learned along her rise as one of the most influential women in business.

“A leader’s most fundamental job is to sense danger and opportunity ahead of others and to act on that knowledge,” Carly Fiorina said, in her first visit back to the Harvard campus since the HP-Compaq merger was announced in 2002. The former CEO of Hewlett Packard addressed a packed crowd at the Kennedy School of Government on October 17, in a forum organized jointly by KSG and HBS’ Women’s Student Association. Largely removed from the public eye since her dismissal from HP by the HP board in 2005, she has recently resurfaced in the media with the launch of her memoir, Tough Choices: A Memoir. Her speech centered on the topics addressed in her book around her rise to the top at AT&T, Lucent and HP as well as her subsequent high profile dismissal.

After graduating from Stanford with a double degree in medieval history and philosophy, Fiorina continued to the UCLA School of Law but dropped out after a semester, in her words, “the first real adult decision I made in my life”. She started her career at the real estate firm Marcus & Millichap as a secretary “in order to pay the rent” but was promoted after six months when her employers recognized her potential. The promotion had a profound effect on her-not only did she realize her love for business, but she also recognized that one of the most important acts as a leader is to see the potential in other people and to help nurture that potential.

Fiorina went on to become a salesperson at AT&T, where she battled gender stereotypes by showing her ability to behave like the boys. In a story which drew much laughter from the audience, she described how she insisted on attending a client meeting with her male colleague despite the fact that it was to be held in a strip club. At the end of meeting, the males were more uncomfortable than she was but they realized that she was not to be intimidated. She went on to be a VP at AT&T before joining Lucent as the EVP of corporate operations when it was spun out of AT&T, and later became its President of the consumer products division. In 1999, HP appointed her CEO.

As might be expected, Fiorina defended her record at HP, particularly her changes to performance measurement and organizational structure as well as her efforts to redirect the company to focus on innovation. After missing nine quarters of earnings expectations during the dot-com era, she felt that she needed to transform an underperforming bureaucracy into a performance-focused meritocracy. She was shocked for instance, to learn that employees had been receiving record bonuses despite the dismal results. “The internal measurement system had nothing to do with comparative reality,” she said. Moreover, HP was run with “a thousand tribes”, each with their own organization, and little alignment with the customers. However, she did recognize that changes to measurement, reward and organizational structure would be deeply emotional for most people. Initial resistance to what was deemed to be contrary to the “HP Way” was fierce but Fiorina pointed out to employees that the label had started to obscure reality, and that the underlying philosophy behind HP was innovation. Fiorina, surprisingly, did not speak much about the decision to merge HP with Compaq, despite it being a cornerstone of her transformational strategy for HP.

Moving away from her personal career, Fiorina spoke a great deal about the importance she laid on personal integrity and honor. “Values matter and character counts,” she said. She was outspoken in her criticism of the ethical levels within boardrooms of American companies today. “We know that when people’s personal agendas overtake their public responsibilities, bad things happen,” she said. She took the current scandal surrounding the back-dating of stock options as an example to illustrate the prevailing attitude where one can do whatever one wants so long as there is no rule saying that you cannot. Lamenting the lack of conversation about the fundamentals of values and ethics in corporate America today, she continued, “No amount of regulation can ever substitute for strong values and a strong sense of ethics.”

When questioned about the issues still surrounding women leaders of today, Fiorina was pragmatic in her replies. Despite spending six years at the top of Fortune’s most powerful women in business list, she was skeptical about the value of such rankings, emphasizing that it further divided the female leaders from their male counterparts and sends the wrong message that women do not play in the same league as men. While she acknowledges that there has been progress, she highlighted several examples where she felt that the media still tended to portray the female business leaders like Patricia Dunn and herself as one distinct group, rather than be judged alongside other male business leaders.

She acknowledged however, that rising to the top will take intensely hard work and that everyone will have make tradeoffs in the work-life balance decisions at some stage. In her case, she was fortunate in that her husband decided to give up his career to support her career as HP’s CEO, but not everyone will be as fortunate. However, she did express her view that business can make these choices easier by innovating around the way people work, as HP did with their Flex-Time initiative.

Fiorina advises young women looking to enter a career in business to know what they are capable of, to find what they love and to seek out people who will take a chance on them. “Stay true to yourself, be brave and be strong,” she said. As her editor commented upon reading her book draft, “it ain’t pretty but it can be done.”