Rise and fall of a celebrity chief executive

Carly Fiorina discusses the emotions, prejudices, power struggles of business

Oct. 30, 2006, Chicago Tribune
By Barbara Rose

It’s been nearly two years since Carly Fiorina was fired as Hewlett-Packard’s chief executive, but her ability to spark controversy is undiminished .

Her recently released memoir, “Tough Choices,” unleashed a chorus of criticism that she fails to “get it” because her book blames a dysfunctional board for her downfall rather than her own performance. “I was there,” she said in an interview. “I think the facts are on my side.”

For sure, her harsh assessment of HP’s board resonates with truth. The company’s recent spying scandal into the boardroom leaks that started on her watch and played prominently in her firing later led to the resignations of the very directors who forced her out.

Her successor as chairman, Patricia Dunn, stepped down last month and faces felony charges related to detectives’ use of phony identities to gather phone records in the board’s leak investigation. Dunn said she was unaware of the tactics.

But Fiorina, who is well-schooled in the corporate world, sounds oddly naive when she writes in her tell-all account that during the final months of 2004, shortly before her firing early the next year, “the only clouds on the horizon were the press and the stock price.”

Fiorina’s experiences during her climb to a pinnacle few men and even fewer women ever reach reveal a lot about how big corporations work. And even though it’s clear she always does things her way, her account of a woman’s rise from receptionist to Fortune magazine’s perennial choice for the most powerful woman in business is useful to anyone looking to succeed.

She talked about her book and her life last week in an interview in the lobby of a North Michigan Avenue hotel. The first surprise upon meeting her: She’s soft-spoken. And the one-time business celebrity, so often portrayed as an attention-seeking glamour puss, is unassuming. She carries herself with so little self-importance that a man wanders over near her with a book and sits down to read without giving her a glance.

Not groomed for business

She was never groomed for business. She writes that her father made his mark in academia as a law professor before joining the bench as a federal judge, while her late mother stayed home to raise three children.

Fiorina, the middle child, worshipped both her parents and was so afraid of losing them–she knew they had lost their parents at early ages–she had nightmares. She recalls getting up and standing silently by their bed, willing her mother to breathe. She was in high school before she dared leave them overnight for a slumber party.

Yet this insecure child, so bent on pleasing demanding parents, a grind in college and a stellar student who hated law school, discovered her calling at a realty firm. There, working as a receptionist after dropping out of law school, she learned that she loved being part of a team on an effort driven by facts and numbers, dollars and cents. But as anybody knows, business also is about emotions, prejudices and power struggles. And this is the stuff of her book.

She writes about a boss at AT&T who introduced her to a customer as Carly, “our token bimbo.” Fiorina, then a new sales manager in her mid-20s, laughed along with him. Only after they left did she tell him never to do that again. How did she manage to laugh? By staying focused on her job.

“My habit always was to deflect those things that weren’t about the job,” she said. “After the fact, we had a conversation that was about respect and self-respect. He and I needed to get that straight.

“I really believe that while we can’t choose our circumstances, we can choose our response to them. That’s how you stay an actor instead of the company victim. You choose your response.”

Using silence as a tool

Her memoir shows her using silence to her advantage, as she did when an AT&T vice president who had started a “whisper campaign” against her was called into a meeting with her boss, who wanted to know how the two were getting along.

By her account, she stayed quiet while the whisperer grew more and more defensive. Not long after, she was promoted to a job that included his responsibilities–her first officer’s post at AT&T. He retired.

Why didn’t she go to her boss earlier about the whisperer?

“I’m a deliberate person. I step carefully. And I couldn’t quite see everything in front of me,” she said. “People who are operating based on their own emotions and their own personal agendas–given enough time they will self-destruct.”

Her book recounts a dinner meeting when an unnamed Boeing executive who was helping AT&T land a big government contract humiliated her. “Why are you doing this anyway?” he asked. “Don’t you want to spend more time with your husband?”

Alone in the parking lot, she broke down and cried. She writes that she vowed never to cry again when she felt she was treated unfairly in business, a vow she says she kept even when HP’s board fired her.

“I realized this was something I would run into a lot and that it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with them,” she said of the Boeing executive’s remarks. “I decided it wasn’t worth my energy any more.”

There are glimpses in the book of Fiorina’s dramatic flair. When Lucent bought Ascend, a company with a more macho culture, she dressed for a presentation wearing a pants suit and cowboy boots. She engaged in some cowboy and macho posturing, showing off her boots and making a boastful reference to the male anatomy. The outrageous icebreaker won her whoops, hollers and a better merger start. Was her performance risky?

“Sure,” she said in her interview. “But it worked, they got it. Sometimes collaboration requires finding common ground.”

Her book’s most poignant section describes her frantic attempt to fly home quickly from an overseas business trip to persuade her dying mother to fight for her life. Her mother’s death remains a “deep sorrow,” she said in her interview, but it also was one more fear to overcome.

“I miss her every day but I wasn’t afraid in the same way after she died,” she said. “And change and courage are habits you build with practice.”

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