According to Matthew Boyle of Fortune magazine, “Carly Fiorina didn’t just break the glass ceiling, she obliterated it.” And in the October 12, 1998 edition of Fortune, Ms. Fiorina was named “The Most Powerful Woman in American Business.”
Ms. Fiorina did indeed break the glass ceiling… as Hewlett Packard’s’ first woman CEO and as the first woman CEO to lead a Fortune 20. When Ms. Fiorina was recruited to lead HP in 1999, the industry was facing the worst technology recession in 25 years. Under her leadership, revenue grew, innovation tripled, growth quadrupled, and HP became the 11th largest company in the U.S.
Before she left the company in 2005, HP was celebrated as one of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens by Business Ethics Magazine and named one of the World’s Most Respected Companies by The Financial Times and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Since, she has served as an adviser to Republican Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. She won the 2010 Republican nomination for the United States Senate in California and was a candidate in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. And she is the author of several books, including her newest, Find Your Way.
Her list of successes goes on and so when I learned she was speaking at a recent University of Texas at Dallas, Institute for Excellence in Corporate Governance (IECG) Conference I eagerly showed up. I respected her leading role in changing HP’s egalitarian “The HP Way” philosophy and work culture, albeit it was a very challenging tenure…
Her employee satisfaction surveys at HP — previously among the highest in America — revealed “widespread unhappiness” and distrust, and she was sometimes booed at company meetings and attacked on HP’s electronic bulletin board. At frequent odds with HP’s board of directors, she was ultimately forced to resign as CEO and Chair following a boardroom disagreement and left the company in 2005.
Yet some have claimed that she laid the groundwork for some of HP’s progress under her successors and that she shook the culture at HP so that it could compete in the Internet Age.
No argument, a force to be reckoned with. That morning at the conference Ms. Fiorina laid out the game plan she had followed on her leadership path.
I was struck by several things she said, not the least of which was, after going on to law school, and dropping out because “she hated law” she went to work as a receptionist in a real estate office. There through the management team, she discovered the core of leadership.
“They saw possibilities in me and because of that I saw possibilities in myself. They encouraged me, they showed me, they taught me things I did not know and because of that I saw a different path.” The core of leadership she said, “helping others see possibilities in themselves.”
She went on to talk about another aspect of leadership, problem solving. As she put it there are problems everywhere, people complain, and they do nothing. Leadership is about identifying and solving problems, changing the order of things for the better.
Leadership is not about titles, or big offices, or power, or position she said. It’s about changing constraints and conditions. Leaders change the status quo. They ask what the problems are around here, and work to change them so they don’t fester.
Ms. Fiorina emphasized that another key component, which I absolutely agree with, is courage. To change things, leaders need to exercise courage. The status quo is powerful, and people are invested in the way things are. She mentioned knowing every board member who served on the Enron board as well as Jeff Skilling and she asked, “What would cause a bright group of people to just sit and accept that things were ok, let’s leave it alone?”
Or a GE, one of the best and brightest companies of all time to allow a steady, slow, predictable decline? GE had luminary board members yet why did they not speak out?Leaders need the courage to change things. And they need Character which implies the fortitude and values to stand up and speak out when they see problems that need to be addressed. Click To Tweet
A leadership ingredient she mentioned as critical and one I did not expect was empathy. She emphasized diversity and the need to have teams that see things differently from the leader. If a team does not have diversity in its thinking, if they cannot have empathy for others, they miss what is obvious.
She said, “on every board where terrible things happen, there is group think.” Empathy, looking at others’ views is critical to success. It allows a team to practice collaboration. Ms. Fiorina believes that everyone has the capacity to lead, yet leadership is always a choice. And it’s about collaboration.
It was a worthwhile session, and her talk resonated with me. If more companies and individuals practiced these simple principles, seeing and addressing problems with the courage to implement change, which is never popular. And asking the difficult questions so problems don’t fester and are on the road to being solved before they can dramatically impact the company, employees and even possibly the economy, maybe we would be able to build even more workplaces that exhibit character and ethics.