For a long time, Carleton S. (“Carly”) Fiorina was one of the best-known CEO’s in the world. Brought in as Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) CEO in 1999, Fiorina was instantly recognisable for her charisma, visibility, and aggressiveness. Practically every OB book (including past editions of this one) featured her. She was even mentioned as a possible cabinet member of the Bush administration or a Senate candidate from California. Widely praised as a change agent and a visionary leader at Lucent Technologies—which she led before joining HP—Fiorina had a way of generating enthusiasm and excitement. Some called her a “rock star” CEO.
However, under Fiorina’s leadership, HP struggled as the world’s second-largest computer company. Although revenue climbed steadily under her leadership, profits did not. Nor did the stock price—an investor who bought HP stock the day Fiorina was hired would have seen 55% of the investment vanish by the time she was fired. Her acquisition of Compaq in 2002, which Walter Hewlett (son of the company’s co-founder and one of HP’s largest shareholders) was adamantly against, never paid off as promised.
As a result of these struggles, the HP board tried to find a way to limit Fiorina’s powers and give more authority to the other executives. A month before her firing, Fiorina was told point-blank by three board members that she had to change her style. She adamantly refused. A month later, when informed of the board’s decision to fire her, Fiorina was “stunned.”
After her firing, there was no shortage of experts to point out her failings. Some felt that Fiorina spent too much time on the road talking to groups and not enough time inside the company. Others felt she over-promised results. One HP executive stated, “there were people inside HP who loved Carly because of her ability to architect a strategy, but then there were the people who thought that she was drawn to all the pomp and circumstance.” Another HP observer claimed after Fiorina’s was ousted, “The employees never accepted Fiorina’s attempts to change HP culture, or her high profile ways (she placed her portrait in HP headquarters next to the HP founders, and she frequently rubbed elbows with rock stars like the Edge, Gwen Stefani, and Sheryl Crow).
For someone who was praised for her energy and leadership, how could the tides have turned so dramatically against her? For now, the rock star CEO is without a band.”
- Why is it that the qualities that seemingly were a great asset to Fiorina and HP—energy, enthusiasm, charisma, vision, tenacity, aggressiveness—became liabilities? Does this case contradict the view that personality is important? Explain.
- Some have argued that Fiorina failed because her personality was “too big” and that she became more focused on herself than on the nuts-and-bolts of business. Can a person’s personality be too strong? How so?
- Some have argued that her firing is an example of the double-standard that being aggressive and forceful works for men but backfires for women. Do you think gender had anything to do with Fiorina’s firing?
- Fiorina had to complete a 2-hour, 900 question personality test as part of the process to select her as CEO. Does this suggest that personality testing has little value?