Tough Choices: A Memoir by Carly Fiorina

Authentic and Worthwhile Too!!!, October 26, 2006

I have spent 35 years associated with Wall Street in one way or another. During that course of time and before, I was fortunate to have met hundreds of individuals who run what are referred to as the Fortune 500 companies. I have also known heads of state, finance ministers, and scores of Nobel Prize winners.

The average American passively spends 4 to 5 hours a day (down from 6 hours prior to the Internet) in front of a television hoping for a good program. One out of every 8 adult Americans watches Wheel of Fortune every day. For close to 40 years, I have spent that equivalent amount of time reading 6,000 to 7,000 books, including several hundred related to business personalities. I put Carly Fiorina’s book right up there with any of them.

I have met most of the players in this book on more than one occasion. Having been associated with two major investing banking firms in my career, these are the types of people who must travel down to Wall Street and look to raise money.

Both Fiorina and her book are the REAL THING. You seldom encounter such authenticity in a book, such a willingness to be open and describe the pain of the situation you encounter. She was also vivid in her portrayal of the corporate life, a life I shunned years ago, as a life not worth living. The fourteen hours days, the all niters, the weekends away from family and personal pursuits, it’s all there for you the reader to understand, and more importantly understand emotionally.

Fiorina should be required reading

Several times per year, I talk with my associates at Harvard University and tell them what they should be reading, and what they should be teaching. Fiorina’s book should be REQUIRED READING for anyone taking a management course, or contemplating a career in management.

Every woman’s studies program in America should have this book front and center in their program. If you want to know what it is like for a woman to work herself up the corporate ladder in a so called “man’s world”, this is the book for you. She points out situation after situation where men say things that they just wouldn’t say to a man, and shouldn’t say to a woman. In recent years, such acts and statements would lead to the dismissal of the offending employee, and potential litigation.

Life is about CHOICES, the ones made, and the ones not made as well. This is a book talking about a life of choices. There are those who argue that such a book is self-serving. All books are SELF-SERVING, and that is part of the Faustian bargain, we make with the author every time we open a book. We are only hearing Carly’s version of what took place. Many times in a court room, the judge has limited information to work with also, but the judge must determine what is true, false and self-serving. The discerning reader can pretty much come away with the truth of the matter after delving deeply enough.

I have been involved with situations that resulted in press coverage on more than 200 occasions in my career. Not once did I recognize the story in the press with the one that I personally participated in. How accurate do you think the selective rendition of a 50 year plus life is going to be in a 309 page book? That’s not why you read a biography. You read a book like this, to step into the author’s shoes and live her life on her terms. You then come away with a feeling for yourself, as to whether this was a life you could have lived on your terms.

Clearly, Fiorina has had a fabulous life with its ups and downs. A world-renowned psychiatrist explained a concept to me many years ago. There are cycles in life. The hope is that the down, or trough of each cycle is higher than the trough of the previous cycle. You just don’t want to take yourself to zero each time, that’s a path of suicide, and leads to misery.

With Fiorina’s very public dismissal from Hewlett Packard we have a person in a down cycle, but she is finding herself in a new life cycle. For those who choose a corporate life, I have found they are no different for the most part than the mindless worker ants that permeate the military staffs of most countries. Not so with Fiorina. Listen to the cadence of her words, and in her voice.

“I was attracted to L’etranger; by Albert Camus…I decided to take as many philosophy courses as I could….Hegel had as profound an effect on me as Camus…. I studied ethics and learned that questions of right and wrong could be nuanced and complex, requiring rigor to unravel…..I studied logic and discovered that disciplined thought processes and well-structured questions are as powerful as the answers….So I studied ancient Greek-to read Plato and Aristotle-as well as Latin, French, and German.”

This is a woman that took a highly developed intellectual mind into the business arena and made it happen on her own terms. More than 100 pages of the book are devoted to building a career foundation at what became Lucent Technologies. From there we swing into what happened at Hewlett Packard from the day she started, to the day she was summarily dismissed by the Board of Directors.

Was she dismissed for incompetence, or ethical violation of common business practices, as Patricia Dunn of HP was recently for the illegal investigations she participated in? The answer is no. The problems that HP is experiencing right now could NEVER have happened under Fiorina because this lady is just too ethically centered to have allowed this to happen.

I’ll let you in on a secret, which I know to be true. Corporate culture always starts at the TOP, and takes its cues from the top- NO EXCEPTIONS. I was with the oldest investment banking firm in America in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s. The partner in charge of my division was a tyrant; nobody believed the way he acted. One day, late at night, I was on the investment banking floor and heard screaming. When I looked around, I realized my supervising partner; a man paid millions per year in those years was being berated, and belittled by the senior managing partner of the firm.

I realized right there that no matter what happens in an organization, the behavior can not be too far removed from the behavior of the person at the top of the pyramid. There are no exceptions. This is why HP’s current ethical problems could not have happened under Fiorina’s leadership. She had a very strong ethical code instilled by good family values. Such a code does not break down under adversity, it comes to the forefront – it asserts itself.

It is also clear that this superstar executive is responsible for HP’s turnaround, and not the current team. Turning around a huge corporation is like turning around an aircraft carrier. It takes 10 plus miles to turn a carrier, and it takes a plan to do the same for an organization. The current management team was in not in power long enough to have effectuated such a turn, that is how you know it was Fiorina’s plan that did the job.

The Dismissal – When you SLAY the King, you must make sure he’s dead

Ms. Fiorina violated the first rule of power. When you are strong you attack. When you are weak, you wait until you are strong. She did not place her own hand picked people on the Board of Directors to protect her flanks. She had several years to do it. This was her undoing.

Most Chairmen are adamant about changing the composition of the Board, once they attain power. You don’t want to be thinking about who’s trying to do you in, while running a company with tens of thousands of people. This was her fatal flaw, and she paid a high price for it. Disney’s Michael Eisner overstayed his effectiveness at Disney for years, because he CONTROLLED THE BOARD.

Having read the book, I believe Fiorina thought inappropriately that smart, gifted people would DO THE RIGHT THING in the interests of the corporation. Nothing could be further from the truth. She believed in the meritocracy of the mind, that good would prevail. It just isn’t the way business works, not at a low level, not at a high level. People are in it for themselves. Executives who fly around the world in corporate jets are just as petty, and foolish in their decision making, as the guy who takes a subway to work.

She should have seen it coming, and prevented it before it happened. She should have had eyes and spies on the Board. Instead, she relied on the good judgment (poor really) of a few self-serving men, who were Brutus to her Caesar. It happens every day across America, and always will

The Last Laugh

This is one special person. We have not heard the last of her. There is too much life and substance in this woman for Hewlett Packard to be her last milestone. She will be back, either leading another big turnaround, or perhaps a political life.

You need to read this book to understand what its like to give your whole life to a corporate entity, and then wonder was it the right thing? What did I sacrifice? What did I forfeit? What could have been, had I chosen differently? Read the book, you are in for some ride.