Fiorina says board let emotion trump reason

Former HP chief executive talks about the dynamics of HP's board and lessons learned from its tribulations.

As they say in politics, timing is everything.

Former HP Chief Executive Carly Fiorina has shown impeccable timing. Her book "Tough Choices" hits shelves this week, just as her former company has found the spotlight over its controversial probe of unauthorized media disclosures.

Fiorina said leaks are a problem but told CNET on Monday that they are just a symptom of a dysfunctional board.

Now, 18 months after being shoved out of HP's doors, Fiorina is looking to not just talk up her book but also to figure out what to write in the next chaper of her life. And a political career is a definite possibility.

"I think it is certainly something I would consider," she said, adding that "public service is an option that has been of interest to me."

In a wide-ranging interview, Fiorina offers her thoughts on HP's board, being spied on and how it's still a man's world in business.

Q: In the past, you seemed to avoid discussions of gender politics and the role it was playing in your career, but in the book, you talk quite a bit about the ways in which your career has been different as a woman. How big a role do you think gender plays in business?
Fiorina: When I was a CEO, my job was to be a CEO. My job wasn't to focus on or talk about the things that were personal to me. My job was to talk about and focus on the things that mattered to the company. The reality is, as I talk about in my book, that business is not yet gender-blind. And so, as a result, my experiences were different as a woman than a man's experiences are. Those are facts.

How big a role do you think that played in the fact that you are not still CEO there?
Fiorina: I think first, as I try to say in the book and as I think subsequent events may have punctuated, my ouster at HP had nothing to do with performance. My ouster at HP was an abrupt emotional decision that was explained after the fact.

You talked quite a bit about the board and its inner dynamics in the book. Given all of that and the experience you have had with them, what did you make of it when this whole leak investigation came out?
Fiorina: On the one hand, I was shocked and sad about how these things and why these things would happen. It strikes me as a breakdown in judgment at many levels. On the other hand, it lifted a veil on the dysfunction of the board and some of the same players. So, in some ways, it may help people appreciate what I was dealing with.

Listen up

On the leak scandal
Carly Fiorina calls it a "breakdown at many levels."

Download mp3 (291KB)

On the Compaq merger
Merger was essential, Fiorina says, in transforming the company from laggard to leader.

Download mp3 (624KB)

Don't call it a turnaround
HP's transformation has been a long time in the making, and Fiorina says she deserves more credit.

Download mp3 (450KB)

One of the things that has come out is that among the phone records they went after were yours. What were your thoughts, personally, when that came out?
Fiorina: My first thought was to be angry about it. Now I just find it sad.

In the book, you talk about, particularly after a January 2005 Wall Street Journal story, being upset about the leaks. Do you share the feelings the board had, in terms of being upset about the leaks?
Fiorina: I think leaks out of the boardroom are a symptom of dysfucntion that has to be dealt with. Dysfunction occurs in a boardroom when people's personal agendas overcome their set of responsibilities. That's what was going on. My focus was to repair the board dysfucntion. The leak was a symptom of this dysfunction. We had to deal with it.

We were focused not simply on who leaked but also on an assessment process. Let's talk about how we interact as a board. Without trust and the ability to have open give-and-take--disagreement absolutely but disagreement in confidence--a board can't function.

Two of the questions I think a lot of people are asking are, "How much of this is commonplace? How much of this goes on at every company?" Are there only a couple of techniques that were used in HP's leak probe that are outside the bounds of what corporations should be able to do? Or was it all kind of out of bounds?
Fiorina: It appears the investigation got completely out of hand both in terms of the techniques and the tactics used, but also in terms of forgetting what the real issue was, which was board dysfunction.

In the book, you point to a lot of things that were going on on that board, one of which was a personality clash between Jay Keyworth and Pattie Dunn. How much do you think that contributed to the eventual situation?
Fiorina: The veil has been lifted on a set of personal animosities and personal agendas that created dysfunction that got worse after I left. Personal agendas create dysfunction when people can't put them aside.

Obviously, you are going to be talking about the book for some period of time, but what's next?
Fiorina: Time will tell. I'm very busy right now, though I have freedom. I enjoy the work that I do right now, in addition to the book, the boards that I serve on, the causes that I am engaged in, the speaking that I do. I haven't made a determination yet in terms of what the next full-time commitment is. I think I will know it when I see it.

What do you think the chances are that a political office would be among the things you would consider?
Fiorina: I think it is certainly something I would consider.

Do you have an interest in that area?
Fiorina: I think public service is an option that has been of interest to me and I assume will continue to be.

Turning back for a bit to the proxy fight, I'm curious about which things stand out the most to you from that period of time.
Fiorina: The merger was an absolutely essential move to make to transform Hewlett-Packard from a laggard to a leader. It was a tough set of choices. Those choices were made in a very difficult time--technology recession, bear market, terrorist attacks, economic downturn. The context was horrfic. But the moves that had to be made, frankly, saved Hewlett-Packard.

This was a company that was lagging further and further behind. It was a company that had become a bureaucracy. It was a company that was so internally focused, it had forgotten about customers. It was a technology company that no longer innovated. The merger had to happen. Did it create resistance? Change always does, and the resistence to change at HP was particularly intense, but it was a move that had to be made.

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