published: Dec. 9, 2013, recorded: October 2006, views: 2836
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As a receptionist, Carly Fiorina made an important observation: people in the mailroom were not “fundamentally different from people in the boardroom -- people are people wherever you find them.” She has made ample use of this insight throughout her life, and in her recent book, Tough Choices. Her talk offers samples of this memoir about her career, especially her beleaguered time at Hewlett-Packard.
Fiorina was fired from HP in a ferocious blaze of publicity, but demonstrates pride in her accomplishments at the company. From 1999 through 2005, she spearheaded a difficult transformation of an “iconic, mythic but also deeply troubled” HP, which had essentially slept through what Fiorina calls “the biggest tech upturn in history.” She credits several courses at MIT Sloan with helping prepare her to meet this challenge of a “company so in love with its past that it could not envision its future.”
On arrival at HP, she perceived “a systems problem of great complexity,” requiring not only changes in the strategy, structures and processes of the firm, but in HP’s values and culture -- the firm’s “software.” Says Fiorina, “For all you -- sorry – quantitative types who think values and organizational behavior is soft stuff—it is the hardest stuff…” Fiorina, an outsider, and a woman in a very male organization, met stiff resistance to her ideas, and relied on her understanding of “fear, human motivation and yeah, the numbers.”
She was challenged on her merger plan with Compaq: “The fact that the tech industry might have to consolidate was viewed as heresy.” Today she feels vindicated. She laid off 36 thousand employees, and acknowledges their resentment. But she believes that a leader’s job “is to see possibilities in circumstances” that others don’t see, and to approach change with a clear-eyed realism that acknowledges both the risks and the benefits. Fiorina views optimism as a core quality in leadership, the belief “that things can get better and that people are willing to go along for the journey in spite of their fears.” She offers closing advice: “Don’t fixate on things you can’t do, but on things you can. If you do that, opportunity will knock.”
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