Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Tough Choices by Carly Fiorina








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There’s one key piece of advice for readers of Carly Fiorina’s memoir Tough Choices: whenever your career offers you an easy path or a tough one, choose the tough one. At several career junctures, that’s what Fiorina did, and as a result she was prepared to take on the CEO job at Hewlett-Packard. Much of the attention to Fiorina came from her tumultuous ride as H-P CEO, and in Tough Choices, readers get a chance to hear her side of that story. Had that been the bulk of this book, it would have been a big yawn. Instead, we hear her tell the story of her formative years, and her complete work career, and most readers will come away with a more complete image of Fiorina, and one that comes across better in print than when she’s presented in visual media. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 11, “The Journey, Not the Destination,” pp. 80-85:


When Lou Golm had taken over FTS2000, he’d decided to let me do my job and not try to do it for me. He had lots of work to do that he didn’t need me for, but where he did, he’d relied on me. He treated his other sub­ordinates in the same way. Because of his decision not to micromanage, to do his job while we did ours, we were all more effective. More than that, Lou’s confidence in me earned him my gratitude, my loyalty and my best work.

In January of 1988, Lou began to talk to me about the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The school of­fered a one-year intensive program of study that culminated in a master of science in business administration. Companies sent midcareer managers to the program for development purposes. AT&T sent two or three people a year, and many candidates vied for those slots. Many of Jim Olson’s Office of the Chairman executives had attended Sloan. Lou himself had gone, and now he and Mike Brunner wanted to sponsor me to attend. This was a pro­gram for people who were being groomed for senior management roles.

It was the first time I thought I might make it to vice president at AT&T. When I joined the company in 1980, I’d figured I’d stick around for a year or two. Maybe I wouldn’t like it, maybe they wouldn’t like me, and maybe I wasn’t really cut out for a big company or a career in business. AT&T had an employee savings plan in which the company matched the employee’s con­tributions; however, if you left, you couldn’t receive the company’s portion of your savings until you’d been at AT&T for at least five years. I declined to join the plan because I knew I wouldnt last that long. On my five-year ser­vice anniversary, Frank and I had just been married and I’d been promoted. It seemed there was quite enough to celebrate, and I wasn’t thinking about what came next. In fact, for the entirety of my now eight-year career, I’d poured all my energies into the job I had and didn’t think about the career ladder that might be in front of me. Now Lou was telling me it was time to think about it. More than that, he was telling me I had the potential to climb several rungs.

Of course I said I was interested, but the whole conversation had a sur­real quality to it. Frank and I were visiting Carole Spurner and her husband, Greg, in Key West, Florida, the day I got the phone call from Lou telling me I’d been selected to attend Sloan. When I hung up the phone, I just kept saying, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” It seemed as though my life were happening to someone else.

Sloan turned out to be both a great sacrifice and a great gift. It was a sacrifice because Frank had a very important job of his own, and lie couldn’t just suddenly move to Boston. So he stayed at home with the kids and the dogs and visited as often as he could. I commuted hack and forth. It was a real strain on everyone, hut we learned how strong our marriage really was. It was a gift because of all I learned and the people I met. And in the course of that year I came to accept that the life of a senior business executive didn’t just happen to someone else—it could happen to me.

MIT is full of rocket scientists—literally. Everywhere you go you run into geniuses—Nobel Prize winners, those who will he Nobel Prize winners, students and teachers of incredible mental strength. It isn’t just how smart everyone is that charges the atmosphere, however. It is also a school where discipline and hard work are mandatory. At Stanford people are plenty smart, but when I was there, the atmosphere was quite relaxed. I, and many others, worked extremely hard, but you didn’t have to. At MIT everyone did—and you had to. The curriculum in every department, including the Sloan School, is rigorous and quantitative, and in this pressure-filled world it is expected that everyone will focus on performing with excellence. It was an intimidating academic environment to enter, particularly when I hadn’t been in school for more than a decade.

The required courses for the MS degree included economics, finance, accounting, operations research and organizational behavior. I had studied many of these subjects before, but they had a different impact now that I’d been in the workforce for a while. Certain insights stand out for me still. I remember studying game theory in Jake Jacoby’s Applied Economics course. Economic theory posits that people will always behave rationally based upon their own self-interest. Markets, in economic terms, are collections of peo­ple behaving rationally. Game theory is a quantitative discipline that at­tempts to predict and explain nonrational decision making. In essence, so the theory goes, people can behave irrationally simply because they believe someone else is going to.

Fear and uncertainty can drive behavior. Emotion can determine a deci­sion as often as reason. Large groups, or responsible executives, or individu­als can he motivated to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot through their actions. These are commonsense statements to anyone who has actually ob­served people in the real business world. Apparently, the frequency and con­sequence of nonrational decision making in the marketplace spawned an entire field of study devoted to explaining it.

I remember Gahe Bitran’s course, Management Decision Support Mod­els, which gave me great insight into the requirement for holistic systems thinking. If only one part or parameter of a complex systems problem is understood or acted upon, the problem cannot he solved. Only by compre­hending the whole system—its interactions, dependencies, constraints and pressures—can a real, sustainable improvement be made. Many systems and problems are simply too complex to be approached adequately through a change in organizational structure or the application of subject-matter expertise. You’ve heard the old saying To any complex problem, the simple, obvious answer is wrong. This course proved the point.

In Organizational Psychology, taught by Ed Schein and John Van Maa­nen, we conducted elaborate negotiating sessions through role-playing. This time the role-playing didn’t scare me, but observing the behavior in those sessions was sobering. Everyone would go into them knowing that solutions could only be found by creating win-win scenarios; both parties had to feel their most pressing issues had been addressed. It was startling to see how quickly people could dissolve into I-win-you-lose behavior, even when they knew rationally that it wouldn’t work. Once this pattern was established, and emotion and ego took over, it was very hard to recover and find a solution.

I remember reading a book by Alfred D. Chandler in our strategy course. He wrote, “Strategy should be ennobling.” This made sense to me; an organization’s effort must be sustained through worthy purpose. Fear, the so-called “burning platform,” is a temporary motivator. We all read a case study on a CEO’s undertaking major change at a company Everyone in the class criticized the CEO for moving too slowly; he’d failed to generate enough momentum to sustain his change efforts. After a while I raised my hand and said, ‘We all could have made the same mistake. If he’d moved any quicker, he would have been criticized for being too radical.” I would later be called a radical myself.

I can’t say I loved writing a thesis, hut when it was over, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. Now I’m grateful that I recognize the twin poles of panic—I’ll never start….I’ll never finish—that a writer swings between.

I took electives in manufacturing management. I’d never been exposed to manufacturing before; the disciplines and challenges were fascinating and complex. When I left Sloan, I returned to the manufacturing arm of AT&T. I studied international dimensions of business management. One can tell a lot about the times in 1989: we still talked about “international” in­stead of “global.” Without this course I don’t think I would have had the con­fidence to make the choices I did when I left Sloan.

I took a fascinating course by Michael Lee: Business Implications of Advanced Technology I wrote a research paper on neural networks, and be­yond the intricacies of the science itself, I began to see the connections be­tween not only biology and technology but also between biology and organizational structure and behavior. These insights would help shape the Leadership Framework I would later introduce at Hewlett-Packard.

All of these courses shaped my business thinking. The course that caused me to do the most personal soul-searching, however, was Readings in Power and Responsibility with Abe Siegel. The most profound experience for me was reading Antigone by Sophocles. It is the story of a woman who stays true to her principles despite enormous pressure to sacrifice them, and the isolation and ostracism she faces as a result. My study group had major debates over this book. Was Antigone merely stubborn rather than princi­pled? Had she truly understood the criticism she would face when she made her decision? Antigone was courageous, lonely and resolute. She knew her soul and she kept it. Moral choice was a personal private decision, not a public display.

Ever since reading Antigone, I have taken the time, once a year, to deeply examine my own behavior and motivation. It’s sort of a year-in-review exercise that happens around New Year’s. Each year, alone and in private, I ask myself whether I am at peace with the choices I’ve made. Is my soul still my own?

I met one of my dearest friends at MIT. Deborah Bowker was one of the few other women in our class (there were nine of us out of a class of fifty). Like me, she lived in downtown Boston, while most of the rest of the class lived out in the suburbs. At first we were thrown together out of necessity because we were two women, whose husbands were elsewhere, living alone in Boston. Over time we became virtually inseparable. We decided the class was much too serious, so we threw parties for our classmates and their spouses every Wednesday evening in our apartments. It became a Sloan School tradition. We roomed together on every class trip. We became as comfortable as an old married couple. When a big exam was looming, I’d go off to the libraiy and prepare our study plan for the evening. Deborah would prepare our dinner. I’d ring her doorbell and say “Honey, I’m home!” and then we’d eat and study. Her nickname for me was Antigone.

I observed a lot of CEOs that year. They would come to campus every few weeks and spend an evening with our class. Each would lecture for an hour or so, and then we’d have dinner together. Perhaps by then it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was: CEOs were people too. Just like people everywhere, in every walk of life, some were good at their jobs; some weren’t. Some were straightforward; others dissembled. Some got to the top after a lifetime of preparation; others still seemed surprised they were there. Some practiced intimidation; some were engaging. Some you could see yourself having a drink with; some you hoped you’d never see again. Some impressed me; others depressed me. Mostly the interactions took the mys­tery out of the CEO. And so for the very first time, I told my father when he came to visit that perhaps one day I, too, might become a CEO, just as Frank had predicted so many years ago.

Interacting with the other Sloan Fellows was a year’s worth of learning all by itself. I developed new skills in collaboration because most assign­ments could not be completed alone. I gained new insight into other cul­tures because my classmates came from all over the world. We formed friendships that have endured. We studied hard and laughed a lot. Some of us discovered a great Irish pub near Harvard called the Plough and Stars. It became the setting for one of our favorite games: “If you could spend an eve­ning with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it he and why?’

The Plough and Stars was also the scene of an important revelation that came on our very last day, after graduation exercises. The people who made it to the Sloan program were very driven, type A overachievers who were fo­cused on goals and accomplishments. We had just completed a year that was a great luxury—a sudden intermission in our lives when we could change the pace, tempo and nature of how we spent our days. That night we all wondered aloud whether we had savored the year sufficiently. Had we been too focused on getting that A and not fully absorbing the learning that went on in the process? Had we been so worried about the job we might go back to that we’d failed to appreciate our time without one? Goals are im­portant, but that night I realized that life is about the journey not the desti­nation. The steps along the way are what make us who we are.


The clichés, as in this excerpt, were often distracting, but readers expect this kind of language from any writer who has spent much time in corporate meetings. Tough Choices has some career lessons for readers, and presents a life and a voice that at the least, entertains.


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2006



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 in the December 2006 issue of Executive Times


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