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Book Review: Tough Choices by Carly Fiorina

October 12, 2006

When Hewlett-Packard’s recent investigations into Boardroom leaks blew up into questions of ethics and finally criminal charges, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina may have been shocked by the allegations, but she couldn’t have been surprised by the dynamics that led to them. In fact, as Fiorina makes clear in her new memoir Tough Choices, she believes it was not her job performance that led to her firing in early 2005, but instead the personal agendas that created a highly dysfunctional HP Board of Directors. With several members of that board playing key roles in the current controversy, it’s hard not to wonder if Fiorina is correct.

(While the timing of this book might tempt you to believe Fiorina is capitalizing on the current controversy, she has said in interviews that the book was completed in March of this year and no words were touched after that point. Given the normal lag time in book publishing between the writing and a book’s ultimate release, this is likely true.)

Fittingly, Fiorina begins the book by setting the scene for her ouster. After being made to wait in a hotel room for three hours while the Board of Directors discussed her fate, she returned to find an almost empty room, with only two Board members remaining: “In the end, the Board did not have the courage to face me.” When (now indicted) Board member Patricia Dunn suggested Fiorina portray her dismissal as her own decision, Fiorina refused, wanting the world and her former employees to know she’d been fired.

While Fiorina’s experience at HP and the details of her demise will be the bait for most readers who buy Tough Choices, this is a memoir, so don’t be surprised to find that Hewlett-Packard is not mentioned until the halfway point of the book. And that’s a good thing, as Fiorina’s life up until HP is almost more interesting than her time with HP.

Beginning from the beginning, Fiorina portrays herself as a pleaser, a little girl whose fondest wish is to have her parents be happy with her. And as she racks up straight A’s and heads off to Stanford, she fulfills every parent’s dream of a child on the path to success. That is, until Fiorina quits law school and finds that her undergraduate history and philosophy majors aren’t exactly causing employers to beat a path to her door.

She takes on work as a receptionist at a commercial real estate brokerage, without a clear plan and without any notion of starting a business career (something quite foreign to her parents’ experiences in academia). She finds she loves the business world, and it’s not long before the receptionist is given more and more responsibility, and the resulting increase in confidence inspires her to pursue an MBA.

Upon finishing business school (and realizing her first marriage is dissolving after a very short time), Fiorina goes against the grain of her classmates in choosing to start her career as a management trainee with an old-school company, AT&T.

Her first “real” job is an eye-opener. At this point, women still weren’t taken seriously in most companies, but Fiorina wasn’t about to let that cow her. In fact, she makes a point to her male colleagues very quickly when she shows up uninvited at a client meeting that just happens to be taking place at a strip club. It won’t be the first time she feels disparaged by men in the workplace, and it won’t be the last time she presses forward regardless.

Fiorina progresses steadily upward at AT&T, and eventually becomes one of the top officers of AT&T’s highly successful spinoff, Lucent Technologies. As she describes this phase of her career, Fiorina talks a lot about leadership and employee motivation, using examples such as her habit of starting each new job by trying to understand how she can help her employees instead of the other way around, defining worthy purposes for people to set their sights on, and her habit of always being prepared by outhustling the competition. She also discusses the first time she had to fire someone, an occurrence she would repeat many times in the future.

As an officer at Lucent and eventually CEO at HP, Fiorina quickly realized that a rise in rank meant a rise in personal scrutiny. After Fortune named her the most powerful woman in business while with Lucent, Fiorina noticed that this “honor” brought plenty of baggage in how people treated her. And, in one of her first interviews as HP CEO, she is taken aback to hear the first question out of the reporter’s mouth: “Is that an Armani suit?”

Fiorina describes her apprehension at taking the top job at HP. She describes a culture of complacency, with a “thousand tribes” each running their own separate operations, never communicating and rarely thinking of things from the customer’s perspective. While others champion this decentralized model as “the HP way”, dating back to the days of its legendary founders, Fiorina sees a company that is losing ground to its competition and is not particularly interested in changing the situation.

That Fiorina steps in and wastes no time changing everything may explain the resentment that so many feel toward her, even today. Citing the inefficiencies and redundancies of running HP as 87 different companies, not to mention the confusion it causes customers who complain about product inconsistencies and their inability to figure out who to call with problems, Fiorina starts a massive reorganization and massive job cuts. While she considers this one of her “tough choices”, you don’t get the feeling that she spends much time thinking about the impact the job cutting/cost cutting has on people’s lives, and this also may explain the hard feelings many have toward her.

Of course the biggest move of Fiorina’s HP reign was the acquisition of Compaq, a move that many questioned and which led to an unexpected proxy fight led by Walter Hewitt, an HP founder’s son. The acquisition was completed, but the bad blood it stirred up started the clock ticking on Fiorina’s time at the helm.

Fiorina talks of her ultimate dismissal as a shock, yet as a reader it doesn’t seem so shocking. In a time of high turmoil, Fiorina comes across as a woman who’s got her head down and is just going to keep grinding. But while Fiorina spends so much of the book discussing the human aspects of business, her inability to fully realize the hard feelings that her moves have caused is surprising. Yes, certain members of the Board of Directors comes across as petty and politicking (e.g., several key leaks to the press, something that current HP watchers can see as the beginning of a pattern, are obviously done to undermine Fiorina). But while Fiorina is focused on the future, she misses out on, or dismisses, the animosity that is building.

Maybe that’s not her fault. As she says, she had to make tough choices and deal with them, and her job was to run the company, not baby unprofessional Board members. And it’s easy to argue that her moves as CEO, including the Compaq acquisition, are paying dividends for HP today. (Of course, many would argue that she deserves no credit whatsoever for any of HP’s current success, but that would be sour grapes.) In the end, though, she didn’t do enough to keep her job, and it’s obvious she misses it.

If you’re less familiar with Carly Fiorina, you’ll come away from Tough Choices with an impression of her as a capable, confident leader, who ultimately got canned for doing exactly the job she’d been hired for. But of course this is Fiorina’s version of events, and it’s obvious from the often bitter reaction to her return to the spotlight that there are many who see things differently. Which makes this a book worth reading.

For me, bottom line? I’d hire her.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world. 

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