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Carly, We Hardly Know You-Still

Armies of executives, analysts and journalists have watched Carly Fiorina for years. The CEO of Hewlett-Packard worked for AT&T for …

Armies of executives, analysts and journalists have watched Carly Fiorina for years. The CEO of Hewlett-Packard worked for AT&T for 17 years, playing a major role in the spin-off of Lucent in 1996. While at AT&T, she was known as a “change agent,” a term that must be used judiciously in view of what happened-or didn’t happen-at Ma Bell. At Lucent, she was a major part of Rich McGinn’s ill-fated regime. She gave great interviews and displayed great style, but no one was sure at the time whether she was part of the solution or part of the problem.

Then HP’s board-smitten with her charisma and reputation as a go-getter who could shake things up-hired Fiorina as CEO in 1999. She tried to pull off one major reorganization that failed. Whether because it was ill-conceived or resisted by employees wedded to the “HP Way” remains up for debate.

So the key question among Fiorina-watchers is this: Is she simply someone who knew how to project charisma and determination, allowing her to prevail even when her businesses were in trouble? Or is she a heroine who finally found the right role at HP as she engineered its acquisition of Compaq, the largest technology takeover in history?

These two books, both written by top business journalists, take different approaches and ultimately, fail to resolve the debate. BusinessWeek’s Peter Burrows didn’t gain access to Fiorina for his book because of a negative article he had written; George Anders, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and currently with Fast Company, did have a series of interviews.

Predictably, Burrows relies on material from Walter Hewlett, son of founder Bill Hewlett and the HP board dissident who resisted the Compaq merger and then led one of the most acrimonious shareholder battles in history. The fact that Burrows leans on Hewlett gives the book a decided edge in describing Fiorina’s “haughtiness” and overall conduct.

“She had brilliance, charisma and courage, yet her tenure was in deep trouble,” Burrows writes. “Since she had taken over, the stock had dropped from $80 to $23, and she was close to losing the allegiance of many of HP’s employees. After failing to spot the worst downturn in tech industry history in late 2000, she’d had to make the biggest layoffs in HP history-yet was still collecting on her $70 million-plus pay package and flying around in corporate jets she ordered soon after her arrival at HP.”

That stings. Unfortunately for Backfire, however, Walter Hewlett is not exactly a sympathetic character either. He missed a critical board meeting because he had to play cello with some of his pals. And his major intellectual impulse was to cling to the old HP way pioneered by his father and co-founder Dave Packard. He wasn’t on the cutting edge of understanding the company’s future; he was, in many ways, just baggage from the past.

Anders’ Perfect Enough was written with Fiorina’s support and critics characterize it as pro-Fiorina. However, careful readers will note that Anders’ flat journalistic style leaves room for Fiorina critics to find support for their own views.

The positive take Anders allows is that Fiorina saved HP from its stifling culture and that by merging with Compaq she put the company on a path to go toe-to-toe with IBM and Dell. But he also notes that managing the nitty gritty details of a business might not be Fiorina’s forté. After winning the proxy battle and securing control of the combined company, Fiorina was “straining” to become a different kind of leader.

“She wasn’t the fast-paced outsider anymore, or the daring rebel standing alone,” he writes. “She had become the face of established authority.” Now, Anders adds, “she needed to stand still, repair her own mistakes, and exhibit the day-by-day precision of a skilled operating executive.”

In short, the Carly debate rages on.

About William J. Holstein

William J. Holstein