Carly Fiorina's HP Legacy


Oct. 10, 2006 — -- For someone who is running around the country these days portraying herself as a victim, Carly Fiorina is actually one very lucky lady.

Thanks to the boardroom scandal at her old company, Hewlett-Packard, there is a renewed interest in her controversial tenure as CEO/chairwoman of that company -- enough interest to land her interview segments on last Sunday's "60 Minutes," on this morning's "Good Morning America" and a second print run on her new book, "Tough Choices."

Better yet, because the recent HP scandal centers on Patricia Dunn, the woman who replaced her as chairwoman, and involves many of the same players, Fiorina is now free to utter dark implications that her own case really involved secret conspiracies and sexism -- and actually have a few suckers out there believe her.

What Patricia Dunn did was idiotic and illegal, and she was obviously in over her head as chairwoman of the board. But, by all indications, she let her obsession with protecting HP and her duties to corporate governance take her over the line into breaking the law. Everything she did was for the company, not her own self-aggrandizement.

No one can ever say that last line about Carly Fiorina, the very embodiment of the dot-com boom corporate superstar. One is hard-pressed to think of anything she did during her time at either Lucent or HP that wasn't designed to burnish her own image -- at the sacrifice of anyone who got in her way. Indeed, that's exactly what she's doing now with her self-exculpatory book: blaming the victims -- that is, everyone but herself -- for her failings as a manager.

There is one more way that Fiorina is lucky. Just as she managed to skip out of Lucent right before the Feds arrived, so too has she been out of HP just long enough for the media not to draw too many connections between the scandal and the pestilential culture she created at the company. Only a few reporters have noted that the leaks began during the last days of Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard, when her policies and personality had turned the board into an armed camp, etched with paranoia and divided against itself.

It was from this poisonous stew that the scandal emerged -- a passive-aggressive Dunn, faced with what appeared to be a mutinous board, instead of confronting the directors head-on, instead decided to become Inspector Javert behind the scenes. That this little fiasco took a year to play out guaranteed that Fiorina would be far enough from the blast zone to point at the smoking crater and be able to claim, not that she helped set the process in motion but that she was the first victim of this evil cabal.

For all her attempts to rewrite history, there are certain facts that Fiorina cannot escape. The first is that in the only plebiscite on her leadership -- the proxy vote over the acquisition of Compaq Computer -- HP employees, men and women, repudiated her. Fiorina may claim now that HP's current strong business is the product of her strategy -- a dubious claim in itself -- but the fact is that the first requirement of corporate leadership is to get the employees to follow. At that, she failed miserably.

She's gone public with her opinion that she took a stodgy old company and moved it forward, turning it into a leading-edge business. But look at her tenure. She took a company that was one of the most innovative of all time, one that empowers its employees, and turned it into a top-down company that was trying to profit off the PC market -- an aging business that was past its twilight. Where's the cutting edge in that?

Another fact is that the real reason Fiorina lost her job at HP was because, even as the rest of the tech industry was recovering from the dot-com bust, HP's stock remained flat -- at least until current CEO Mark Hurd came along to tear down Fiorina's infrastructure and restore company morale. In other words, Fiorina's leadership was also repudiated by both the analysts of Wall Street and thousands of average shareholders with no personal interest beyond a return on their investment.

Finally, if Fiorina was fired by a conspiracy of her board of directors, as she claims, it was a conspiracy led by her own mentor at the company, Dick Hackborn, who had convinced HP to hire her and had formerly been her greatest champion. In the end, even he turned on her.

In other words, her employees, her shareholders, industry analysts and her own board of directors repudiated Carly Fiorina's leadership of Hewlett-Packard. There is a clinical term for people who believe in such elaborate conspiracies against their own person. Meanwhile, the truth is that, for all of her post facto justifications, Carly Fiorina was a failure at Hewlett-Packard.

And there is one final fact: Corporate executives aren't fools. There are any number of corporations out there looking for a top-notch new CEO or chairman. Where are the job offers for the once "most powerful woman in American business?" Meanwhile, Fiorina has spent the last year writing her literary self-justification and touring the distant world, raking in big fees giving speeches to credulous businesspeople who only know her name, not her reputation.

Trust me, that reputation endures in Silicon Valley, where she now enjoys the title (not easy to get) of the worst CEO in Valley history. And for real Carly-hatred, you need only visit a local HP division and ask any survivor of her time with the company. Ask them what they thought of Carly Fiorina, and then you'll have your answer.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.'s "Silicon Insider" columnist, Michael S. Malone, worked at Hewlett-Packard from 1975-1979. His book, "Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company," will be published in Spring 2007.

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