28 November 2009

Carly for California?

Big brands tell a never-ending story. Earlier this month, a brand from my past resurfaced with a new chapter, when Carly Fiorina announced she was running for the US Senate. Now anyone who's been around IT or lived in Silicon Valley recently will recall the high-profile celebrity CEO of Hewlett-Packard whose tenure from 1999 to 2005 was exhilarating and yes, excruciating at times, for HP employees of that era. I vividly recall her story; I am one of the survivors.

Carly oversaw arguably the most audacious merger in business history to that point in time, when HP acquired Compaq over a long-drawn campaign in 2002. The merger was approved at a watershed EGM by the narrowest of margins (less than a percentage point, if I recall correctly); and the company spent the next 3 years fighting to prove the wisdom of the strategy.

Sadly our progress wasn't quite enough or fast enough for Wall Street; so in 2005 Carly
was given the boot. In
the intervening years, Mark Hurd has come in and
delivered what Carly could not -- operational efficiency and subsequent marketplace success. Carly, for her part, has had to contend with an even larger, more personal battle -- with cancer. She has reportedly come through it, and is now ready to represent the people of California.

It isn't going to be smooth sailing. The reception to Carly over the past few weeks has been, well, frosty and skeptical. Some more vocal bloggers & commentators have hauled her over the coals with seeming relish. (By the way, notice how that's the way with many high-profile brands? They are not shy of -- and indeed polarize -- public opinion. You either love them or loathe them: think about Microsoft or Nike of a few years back.) Yes, she made some gaffes when announcing her intentions and in follow-on interviews. And yes, her campaign website, http://www.carlyforcalifornia.com/, gives a little too much credit to herself for HP's current standing and not enough to Mark Hurd. But I wouldn't be too quick to write her off as an unworthy candidate.

This is the CEO who inspired a whole generation of HP employees to believe, to give of their best, and who came along with her on that incredible journey to preserve the best and reinvent the rest of the proud HP legacy. (She made it easy for me to conduct brandjams across the Asia-Pacific by providing an inspiring keynote that rallied our troops around the cause -- first time I've seen an intelligent audience give a videotape a standing ovation.) While history has shown -- through Mark Hurd's success -- that Carly was probably not equipped with enough operational savvy to execute her grand plan ... it is clear to me that Mr Hurd (with due respect) would probably not have been able to get the merger approved in the first place. It needed someone with the personal charisma and communication skills of Carly to seal the deal. In summary, Carly was the right leader for HP then; as Mark Hurd is absolutely right for HP today.

So. What are the chances of Carly bringing some change to California? I'd say, let's give her a bit of room to flex and engage. Good leadership is hard to come by. My only caveat, is this: That government doesn't go out of business -- whereas employees in private companies realize their jobs depend on executing the leader's strategy flawlessly. Civil servants, speaking bluntly, have a more iron-clad ricebowl. They may be unwilling to accept the need for change.

Carly may yet find this hill even harder to climb than HP.

No comments: