Carly Fiorina's record as HP CEO from 1999 to 2005 has come under increased scrutiny as she has risen in the polls, and a number of people have had less than flattering assessments of her leadership (see New York Times and Politico), with a particular focus on the Compaq-HP merger, widely panned in the media as a dreadful shift in strategy from services to more hardware in sharp contrast with the main direction the computer industry was moving toward. This makes Fiorina appear a bit out-of-touch and reinforces the feeling that she didn't know what she was doing because she wasn't an engineer.
But I just came across with a very different theory in The Dictator's Handbook (Why bad behavior is almost always good politics) by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, and I want to share the gist of it here because, although the merger was a terrible business decision, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith argue convincingly that it made perfect sense for Fiorina in her attempt to remain at the top of HP. Their analysis seems like a far more accurate assessment of Fiorina's political (if not business) skill. They argue that Fiorina was trying to build a board with stronger loyalty toward her, in order to ensure her longevity in office. This is why, they claim, she had trimmed down its size from fourteen to ten/elevent and shuffled its membership. The merger with Compaq could then be seen as a further attempt to weaken or remove her opponents from the board because "once the deal was sealed Fiorina would have to bring some Compaq leaders onto the post merger HP board" (p.55).
Instead of increasing the size of the board (she had, after all, just decreased its size), this could have been achieved by "pruning the existing board to make room for the new, Compaq representatives," who - the authors argue - would have been more likely to work with her rather than oppose her since she had been the lead advocate of the merger. The authors point out that there was a significant increase in board members' compensation around that time, "perhaps in an effort to shore up the support of remaining old hands on the board" (p,56). I won't quote their entire analysis but they make a convincing argument that the merger made complete political sense for someone interested in remaining in power. For those interested in reading more, check out pp.51-57 of the paperback edition of the Dictator's Handbook.
I've got to say, I read her memoir Tough Choices when it first came out in hardcover, and I liked it a lot. Maybe it was because there are so few biographies of women business leaders out there. I understand that of course Fiorina is a consummate saleswoman by training, adept at convincing the public the image she wants to give of herself, but the book was extremely well written, engaging, thoughtful with compelling anecdotes.
I found it most noteworthy that she comes from a family where each parent didn't really know one of their parents and picked as a second husband someone who lost his father as a young teen (her first marriage floundered when she became more assertive, which is interesting given how self-confident Fiorina seems today), and that she tried to observe a wide range of people in her life experiences, including during her much-publicized stint as secretary. Commentators have argued that it doesn't really count because she didn't remain secretary for long, but when I was in engineering school in France we all had to spend five weeks doing a blue-collar internship in our first year to work side by side with the sort of people we were expected to lead one day. The school director had decided that it was important to have that experience, even if it lasted even less than Fiorina's time as secretary.
Perhaps the issue regarding with Fiorina's "from secretary to CEO" narrative is more related to the fact that she doesn't seem to have used that interaction to develop much obvious empathy toward the people she later led at HP (and, for many, also let go). Xerox's CEO Ursula Burns, for instance, is very clear she feels very responsible for the many employees who work for Xerox, in terms that recall servant leadership (she said at a recent 92nd Y panel I attended that she realized very quickly that this [the CEO experience] was not about her.) This is something Burns's predecessor, Anne Mulcahy, has also echoed, for instance in You're in Charge: Now What? where she is quoted as worrying at night about the people who would lose their jobs if she didn't manage to turn around Xerox. When I read recent interviews by Fiorina, I don't get much the feeling that the fate of the HP employees who depended on her and her leadership was keeping her awake at night or that it is the sort of reaction that she would like to convey to begin with, but maybe I've had bad luck in the articles I have come across. Yet, I still plan to continue re-reading Tough Choices and hopefully the book will resonate with me as much as it did the first time around, so many years ago. And then I'll wait for Indra Nooyi or Ursula Burns to write their own memoirs.