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Self congratulatory and evasive - but well worth reading
on 27 September 2009
This interesting if self-congratulatory book sadly leaves all of the more interesting questions unanswered. The defining action of Fiorina's six year stewardship of Hewlett Packard was the merger of HP with Compaq in 2001. It ran into huge opposition from the company's own shareholders, led by the son of founder Bill Hewlett. Did Fiorina see this coming? Apparently not. After her successful defence and implementation of the merger, Fiorina gets summarily sacked by the board. Why? Fiorina has no idea. It's a mystery.
Fiorina had already acquired the unfortunate nickname of `Chainsaw Carly' as a result of her swingeing programme of cuts and lay-offs following the crash of the technology bubble in late 2000. But her assessment of the state of the industry post-crash (and then post-nine eleven) was almost certainly more right than most other people's: growth rates of five times GDP were a thing of the past; it was time for the still-young industry to consolidate.
Fiorina is keen to portray the Compaq merger as 'not her baby': another board member first raises the idea; Fiorina is cautious; all options are explored; the board finally and unanimously endorse the decision to undertake the merger. But investors and Wall Street as a whole are deeply sceptical. More importantly, Walter Hewlett spearheads a shareholder revolt aimed at preventing the merger. Things get very nasty, but Carly leads a successful defense and the merger is finally approved.
Fiorina's implementation of the merger is deeply impressive, and reflects her core belief in attention to detail. Whatever faults Fiorina may have, she emerges from this book as a class act in terms of the leadership and management of major initiatives at the highest possible level.
Yet in 2005 she is summarily sacked by Hewlett Packard's board of directors. Why? This book offers no clues. Fiorina is either blissfully unaware of her defects, and of other people's perceptions of her, or she wilfully refuses to acknowledge and discuss these. Adverse media comment about her management style is occasionally mentioned, but is dismissed without comment or insight. Just as Fiorina was apparently taken by surprise by the opposition to the merger, so she appears to be unaware that the board was later moving against her - and offers no possible explanation as to why they should do so. We have to remind ourselves that she was the chairman of this board. In a leader, such a lack of awareness about where the political wind is blowing looks like carelessness. Or maybe she did know what was going on, but she isn't telling.
Fiorina emerges from this book as being extremely pleased with herself: successful business leaders do not tend to be shrinking violets. But her professed wide-eyed amazement about the actions of people who are essential to her survival is ether naïve or disingenuous. This book has value as an insight into the leadership and management techniques of a prominent figure in modern business, but it won't help you to avoid Carly's fate (with or without the consolation of her $21 million pay-off) because it reveals none of the important details about what really happened - or, to be more precise, about what anybody other than Carly Fiorina was thinking at the time.