Carly Fiorina and Me

I’ve put off commenting on Carly Fiorina’s book, Tough Choices: A Memoir, because I’ve had so many confused thoughts. I’ve decided that’s not going to change, so I instead offer you the following dis-jointed, ever-so-partial assessment:

(1) I liked the book. I thought it was a helluva read—not easy when you know the ending. And best of all: She wrote it herself!!!!!

(2) I thought Carly’s recounting of her life saga was nothing short of captivating and amazing—worth the price of admission alone. Courage, conviction—all those good words are merited.

(3) In particular, I liked the AT&T part as much as the HP part. I’ve consulted to AT&T (of old—very) and Western Electric. Other than old Chase Manhattan Bank, it is home to the most brutal organizational politics I’ve experienced. (And, hey, I worked in the Nixon White House.) Carly, Carly-the-woman, survived and thrived. She is doubtless a Master Politician (all top players, public and private sector, must be) … but her bottom line performance was exceptional+.

(4) When we get to HP, we get to the tricky part for me. Premise: The “Fabled HP Way” (always the … Fabled HP Way) was busted. My problem is that one of my very closest friends was the final pre-Carly presiding officer—the late Lew Platt. He and I lived next door at Cornell, nerdy engineers both, and he was my best friend’s best man. “All business is personal,” someone said—whoops, it was me who said it. Carly arrived and started screwing with the HP Way—for which I can never forgive her. (No matter at all that she was very, very right … if occasionally somewhat hamhanded in execution. Look, I lived in the Palo Alto area for 30+ years—”one nation, under HP” was our schoolroom substitute for others’ “one nation, under God.”)

(5) I hate, hate, hate big mergers. But at the time—and today—I vigorously support/ed the Fiorina-driven HP-Compaq merger: (a) Dick Hackborn supported it. (b) HP-as-mini-Xerox/printer company was a travesty. (Don’t get me started on the Hewlett boy; among many, many stupid things, he claimed “operating experience” at VTel; that’s my local VT phone company—all six subscribers—bet Little Hewlett couldn’t find Vermont on a map.) (c) Compaq is a lot, lot more than a PC company. (d) The culture clash bit was destined to be easier than normal. The primary ingredients were: Rod Canion’s Compaq, Jimmy Treybig’s Tandem, Ken Olsen’s DEC and Bill & Dave’s HP. (e) The merger mostly worked.

(6) Carly had a tougher job than Welch ay GE or Gerstner at IBM. Jack and Lou were resurrecting Grand Old Cultures that had run aground. (Both did magnificent jobs.) Carly needed to find a new culture to some more or less great extent.

(7) The Board political crap I found boring as hell. All boards are political nightmares, especially as the days of CEO-and-10-golfing-buddies become a distant memory. Shareholder activism (I’m a great Boone Pickens fan) and then post-Enron board-independence-or-Sing Sing adds much fuel to the fire. (It’ll only get worse. Wait ’til Spitzer’s President.)

(8) My biggest problem with the HP-Carly story is too much “vision,” not enough “execution.” (I am revealing decades-old biases here.) People mis-read the hell out of me. I was never, never, never a “vision guy.” In fact Bob Waterman and I wrote In Search of Excellence almost solely because we were pissed off at McKinsey’s (and corporate America’s) worship of strategy and vision. (I.e., we Americans had “vision.” The Japanese “made cars that worked.”) It’s no accident that “a bias for action” was the first of our “eight basics.” (Still is today.) One critical, as I see it, thing Gerstner did at IBM was to contemptuously dismiss the constant calls for “vision” until he got the operating bugs ironed out. And don’t I remember (oh, I do!!) that Bush I was constantly accused of being light on the “vision thing.” Not true of Bush II. (B II of course has had some “implementation problems.”) (To inject the personal, I am told I was the first Stanford B.School PhD candidate to write a dissertation on Implementation. Cool if true, great urban legend if not.)

(9) I have a little riff I call “4/40″—the only 4 things I claim I’ve learned in the last 4 decades, that began with me as a platoon leader in Danang Vietnam. And #1 is DECENTRALIZATION. (#2 is Implementation.) I full well understand that life, personal or professional, is a “matrix” of some sort. But if you read Tom Peters, from 1975 to about 1985, I lived only to put the God-awful matrix organization out of its misery—lots of things helped, but I had some non-trivial success. (#3 is Accountability—”accountable matrix” is an oxymoron! Period!) I understand why Carly built the structure she did; cross-functional coordination is a must, was a must in her (and today’s) HP. But, put simply, you gotta find another path to achieving that coordination—the matrix ain’t it.

(10) Despite my dismissal of “vision,” I think the “direction” Carly laid out was fundamentally right, very right—and is a key reason HP is now moving pretty swiftly in the right direction. On the other hand, I don’t think her successor, Mark Hurd, walked into an easy situation. Maybe Carly should have stayed as CEO and Mr Hurd would have made an excellent COO. Who knows? Frankly, my “HP Dream Team” in that regard would have been Carly as CEO and Larry Bossidy (Mr Execution) as President.

I liked the book. A lot. I like Carly. A lot. (*And I think her husband Frank is one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met.) I think she did 75% of a dirty job that needed doing. And if hell freezes over, she’ll never move me a millimeter away from my Adoration of Decentralization-Implementation-Accountability. (BTW, #4 on my 4/40 list is “get up earlier than the other guy—not a C. Fiorina issue; she has as much energy, not said lightly, as Mr Energy, Jack Welch.)

Whatever …