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Perfect Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett-Packard by George Anders

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

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Readers of George Anders’ new book, Perfect Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett-Packard may come away with more questions than answers about the charismatic CEO, but will likely enjoy every minute spent reading this book. For most engineers, the notion “perfect enough” is somewhat foreign: something either meets specifications or fails. The total quality movement affirmed those engineers for whom a system, process, or product is never good enough, but would benefit from continuous improvement. Enter effervescent sales leader Carly Fiorina into the engineering culture of staid H-P, and there’s sure to be conflict. Anders tells some of that story. He also tells readers something about the background of both Fiorina and H-P. There’s drama to the story of Fiorina’s selection by the H-P board, and her controversial and successful merger with Compaq. Anders writes like a reporter and a novelist, a somewhat enjoyable combination. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 50-51) about an episode in Fiorina’s career with Lucent:

As a Lucent executive, Fiorina brought that passion to everyday commerce and made it seem heroic, too. As her career kept advancing, she became one of Lucent's most visible public speakers, addressing crowds on topics such as "The Communications Revolution." In-house speechwriters crafted much of her message, and while she liked most of their work, in her rewrites she slashed away the last traces of timidity. She didn't visit faraway cities to sav, "I'd like to think that access to new information will become ubiquitous." Instead, she recast the text so that she could evoke all the majesty and simplicity of a preacher's Sunday sermon: "A century ago, the telephone began to transform the world. It changed our concepts of time and distance. . . ."

If she had come of age a generation earlier, Fiorina might have felt enormous pressure—as a woman—to tone down all traits that made her stand out. But her career took off just as doors began to open for women at big companies. In parts of AT&T and Lucent, old-fashioned men still plastered their office walls with Rocky movie posters. They were the Bell Heads, people she once referred to as having "twenty-inch necks and pea-sized brains." Top executives, however, wanted to transform both those companies into fresher, more open-minded places. At several key stages of her career, Fiorina benefited greatly from mentors such as Lucent chairman Henry Schacht and AT&T network systems chief Bill Marx, both of whom labored to clear a path for a talented young woman. As Schacht frequently told associates, "If you aren't promoting women and minorities into very top management, you aren’t making use of the full talent pool in America.

In the treacherous world of workplace interplay between men and women, Fiorina coped with indignities early on, before redefining the rules her way as a top executive at Lucent. During her first months at AT&T, an older colleague invited her to a "business meeting" at the Boardroom, a strip club in Washington, D.C. She regarded it as a hazing ritual and an attempt to prove that she wasn't tough enough to succeed in a man's world. Determined not to be intimidated, Fiorina hailed a cab and headed to the strip club. "I was clutching my briefcase like a badge of honor," Fiorina later recalled, "telling myself: I am a businesswoman. I am. I am.' " Once inside, she talked shop with a half-dozen AT&T managers and clients, trying not to seem either outraged or amused by -what was going on around her. When other patrons tried to coax one of the waitresses to stand on the table and undress, the woman demurred. She looked at Fiorina, sitting calmly in a navy blue business suit, and said: "Not while the lady is here.” That story inspired other women at AT&T. Just by her no-nonsense carriage, Fiorina could evoke better conduct in a rough crowd.

Later, as more women made it into management ranks, Fiorina lightened up. In the mid-1990s, she became known as the best-dressed woman at Lucent, with a clothes closet so vast that her husband mischievously offered to take visitors on a tour. When a colleague's teenage daughter stopped by the office one day, the girl asked Fiorina for advice about what kind of dress to wear to the high-school prom. Fiorina put on her most serious face and declared, "Two words of advice. Expensive and decisive! That's my philosophy." For months afterward, that edict became a surefire argument winner in one New Jersey home: "But Mom, just remember what Carly said. Expensive and decisive!"

Finally, as Fiorina grew truly powerful, she confronted the most disruptive parts of the old-boy network and crushed them. In the late 1990s, Fiorina had risen to be president of Lucent's global service provider business, overseeing the company's largest and fastest-growing business, with $20 billion a year in revenue. She grew concerned that a new acquisition, Ascend Communications, was bringing a frat-house culture into Lucent. So a few hours before a giant talk to 2,000 Lucent and Ascend sales representatives, she prepared a surprise involving three rolled-up athletic socks, borrowed from her husband that morning. She stepped out onstage in a loose-fitting pantsuit and started her talk gently, saying that she realized the two companies had somewhat different cultures. Then she began to get blunter—and earthier. "We at Lucent think you guys are a bunch of cowboys who don't understand carrier-grade quality," she said. "You probably think we're a bunch of wusses. Well, I think it's important that we really get to know each other." With that, she set aside her suit jacket. Now everyone in the audience could see an unmistakable bulge in her pants, just where a virile man might protrude. The bulge—produced by those three athletic socks—was shockingly big. As people gasped, she delivered her closing line: "Our balls are as big as anyone's!"

The meeting collapsed into chaos at that point. People howled, shrieked, and gasped. Five minutes later, they still were sputtering in disbelief. And over the next year, the macho Ascend culture disintegrated. Sales representatives who learned to do things the Lucent way stayed. Those who couldn't adjust left.

Stories like this make reading Perfect Enough quite a pleasure. Fiorina is a likeable enough character as portrayed by Anders (unlike Peter Burrows negative portrayal in Backfire). On finishing the book, it’s clear that there are major challenges ahead for Fiorina and H-P, and it will be more interesting to see what happens next than what happened before.

Steve Hopkins, April 19, 2003

 

ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC

 

The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2003 issue of Executive Times

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