Excerpt: 'Tough Choices' by Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina, a former chairwoman and CEO at Hewlett-Packard, was once hailed as "the most powerful woman in business." But after HP's board of directors ousted her in 2005, she stepped out of the spotlight.

She returns with a highly anticipated memoir, "Tough Choices," about her astonishing rise and fall in corporate America.

Read an excerpt from "Tough Choices" below.

Chapter 5: Not Till the Lady Leaves Sales school, like every school, presented an idealized version of its subject. It still took a lot of hard work, but in sales school the customers were always willing to spend time with you if you had a good idea, it was possible to talk directly to the decision maker, and your teammates were always willing to help you. When I finally arrived at my real desk and started my real job, I was in for a rude awakening.

I joined Government Communications -- that part of AT&T that served the federal government. I didn't know it on my first day of work, but I was the first MDipper to join the sales team to which I'd been assigned.

MDipper was the not-so-flattering term used to describe people like me who came in with graduate degrees through the Management Development Program. Everyone knew who we were, and some of us quickly developed reputations for being arrogant and impatient to move on to the next assignment. The sales district I joined was very successful, and they didn't think they needed any help from someone like me.

I approached my first day on the job with great anticipation. I was on my way! I was going to do real work! I don't know what kind of welcome I expected, but what I got was a big let down. My boss said good morning and directed me to my desk. It was stacked two feet high with books and papers.

He said, "I've written down the accounts we're assigning you to. You can read up on them. Welcome aboard." On a single sheet of paper were the letters USGS, BIA, WPRS. I asked what they meant. He said, "You'll find them in there," as he motioned to the stack of reading material.

I don't know whether I was being tested or whether my boss just didn't know what else to do with me. I did as I was told. I started reading.

Five days later I was still reading. I knew that BIA was the Bureau of Indian Affairs, USGS was the United States Geological Survey and WPRS was the Water Protection and Resource Service. I also knew what the AT&T billing was on each account, what the account team was hoping to sell them, and what each agency's mission was.

Then I started talking to my new colleagues. I did what I always had done when encountering a new situation. I asked a lot of questions, and I'd read enough so that I could appreciate something about the answers. I asked questions about our customers and what we were trying to accomplish. And I asked questions about each of my teammates: how long they'd worked there, what they liked about it, what they didn't like about it.

One of my new colleagues was David Godfrey, who had been brought into the Washington, D.C., office from Oklahoma. He was legendary for the relationships he'd built with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. BIA was the government agency responsible for managing relations with the country's Indian reservations, and it was a very large Bell System client. They had a massive, nation- wide network connecting regional BIA offices, and each Indian reservation had its own communications systems.

David was very protective of his turf and close to retirement. He came in early and always disappeared at lunchtime, usually not to return until the following morning. It was said he could sell anything. I was assigned to "comanage" the BIA with him. No one knew what this actually meant, or who was supposed to do what. David thought the whole thing was a very bad idea dreamed up by our bosses, "who," David informed me, "don't know what they're doing anyway."

One day David let me know that the two most important regional managers at BIA were coming to town. They held the purse strings for the national network and approved all the network upgrades. David was going to meet with them to discuss our latest proposal. I thought it was important that I meet them as well, so I asked if I could join him. David seemed genial enough about it and invited me along. I was delighted. It would be great to have my first introduction to these customers come from David: it would almost be an endorsement from him. Maybe he thought I could help after all!

The day before the meeting David came to my cubicle. "You know, Carly, I'm really sorry. I know we'd planned to have you meet the two directors. The thing is, they have a favorite restaurant here in D.C., and they've requested that we meet there. You know, I always do what the customer wants, and so I don't think you'll be able to join us."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Well, we're going to The Board Room. Sorry." And he walked off.

I needed to consult with Bill. He gave me a slight grin and said: "Carly, it's a strip club."

The Board Room was more than a strip club. As its name implied, it was an upscale "gentlemen's club" on Vermont Avenue. It was famous not just for what happened on stage. Between acts, the young women who worked there would dress in see-through baby-doll negligees and dance on top of the tables while the patrons ate lunch.

The BIA customers wanted to go there, so David and Steve were going to The Board Room. As all of this dawned on me, I was both very embarrassed and very anxious. I went and sat in the ladies' room to think about it in private. I thought for a couple of hours and worked myself into a state of near panic. I had no idea what I was supposed to do in this situation. I couldn't tell myself it didn't matter -- it clearly was important to meet these clients and to convince David that I should be taken seriously. It never occurred to me to be outraged and demand that they not go -- it wouldn't have worked anyway. I had been presented with circumstances that others had created. Fair or not, it was my problem to solve and decide how to respond.

Finally, I went to David's desk and said, "You know, I hope it won't make you too uncomfortable, but I think I'm going to go to lunch anyway. I'll meet you all there." You could have heard a pin drop in the office as everyone watched the scenario unfold.

The next day arrived and I was scared to death. That morning I chose my outfit particularly carefully. I dressed in my most conservative suit and carried my briefcase like a shield of honor. "I am a professional woman," I whispered to myself. I got into a taxicab and, feeling like an idiot, gave the driver the address.

He turned around to stare at me. "You're kidding, right? Are you the new act?" This wasn't starting out well.

I arrived at the destination, took a deep breath, straightened my bow tie "(Dress for Success for Women," a must-read in those days, recommended floppy bows tied at the throat of all blouses), and stepped into The Board Room. It was very dark and very loud. There was a long bar down the right hand side of the place and a large stage to my left. There was a live act going on with probably ten or more women. My colleagues were sitting as far from the door as possible, and the only way to reach them was to cross in front of that stage. I clutched my briefcase tighter and walked to their table, looking seriously out of place and quite ridiculous.

I was cordial and tried to appear relaxed, tried to sound knowledgeable about BIA business, and desperately tried to ignore what was going on all around me. David was in high spirits and really didn't have much interest in working. He was slugging back gin and tonic and kept calling the women over to dance on top of the table. The other men were either amused or slightly embarrassed, but no one tried to stop him. In a show of empathy that brings tears to my eyes still, each woman who approached the table would look the situation over and say, "Sorry, gentlemen. Not till the lady leaves."

After a few hours, having made my point, I left them all there. They heaved a sigh of relief, I'm sure, but the next day in the office, the balance of power had shifted perceptibly. I had shown David and Steve that I would not be intimidated, even if I was terrified. I had proved that I wasn't just another MDipper; I truly cared about doing my job even when it meant working in difficult circumstances. Having tried to diminish me, David was himself diminished. He was embarrassed. And Bill decided that he would take me under his wing and help me succeed.

We cannot always choose the hurdles we must overcome, but we can choose how we overcome them.

Excerpt from "Tough Choices: A Memoir" by Carly Fiorina, published with permission of Portfolio, a division of Penguin Group (USA). (c) 2006 by Carly Fiorina. All rights reserved.