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Twenty months after her controversial ouster from Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina took to the stage at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Tuesday night to tell her side of the story. The first female C.E.O. of a Fortune 500 company defended her record as a company leader and visionary in the technology industry.
“Everyone is looking in the rearview mirror at income statements and balance sheets,” she said of the losses HP endured while she was in office. After being hired to “shake things up,” Fiorina said she preferred to focus on longer term results like customer satisfaction and rate of innovation, which, she explained, improved during her tenure.
And it was the 2002 merger that she engineered between H.P. and Compaq Computers, Fiorina told the Forum audience, which eventually turned the company around.
Fiorina reflected on some of the most potent lessons she learned during her rise to, and fall from, the position of “most powerful business woman in the world,” a title Forbes magazine gave her in 2004.
“I learned how it feels to be at the bottom of an organization,” she said, describing her start in business as a secretary. “Leadership is about seeing the possibilities in people.”
After earning her Masters in Business Administration, Fiorina worked for AT&T, where she discovered that “a meritocracy is hard to achieve because people are more comfortable with people like them.” As a result, she said, it was especially hard to promote people in ways that broke down gender and race barriers.
At Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina said, she discovered that “the natural momentum of any institution is to maintain the status quo.” She explained that because those in power rely on the status quo to stay in power, “sustainable change takes change warriors, not just change agents.”
Fiorina concluded that “business is about people” and that “people are people wherever you find them.” Therefore, in order to be successful, Fiorina said, one needs to understand more than products and profits—one needs to understand relationships.
“Whether you are a secretary or a vice-president,” she explained, “values matter and character counts.”
To watch the video of this event, visit the Forum archive- http://iopforum.harvard.edu:8080/ramgen/fr20061017fiorina.rm
Photo: Martha Stewart
Carly Fiorina talks with a group of Harvard undergraduate women after last night's Forum event.