Revisionist History of Fiorina’s HP Reign

When Carly Fiorina was ousted as Hewlett-Packard’s CEO in February of 2005, the consensus was that she wouldn’t be missed, that she was mostly sizzle and little steak, an eloquent marketer with lots of creative ideas but a paucity of practical knowledge on how to implement them.

Probably the defining act of her reign at HP was the gargantuan merger with Compaq. It took too long for the benefits of the merger to materialize, and Fiorina was shown the door by a board of directors that was under increasing pressure from major shareholders, customers, and HP employees — many of whom never took to Fiorina’s regal marketing style — to find a new leader.

So, they dumped Fiorina, hired a no-nonsense operations specialist, Mark Hurd, away from NCR, and the rest, as they say, is history.

HP certainly has turned a corner under Hurd’s pragmatic, workmanlike stewardship. The company is resurgent in profitability, doing well in nearly every aspect of its business, while capitalizing on the missteps of some of its major competitors, especially the reeling PC market leader Dell.

Now trade journalists and analysts are asking how much credit Fiorina deserves for HP’s recent renaissance. As an article at CNET’s contends, many of the objectives she set for the post-merger HP have been realized, and the vision she had for the company has been vindicated.

Still, as the HP board made clear when it issued her walking papers (as well as a munificent severance package), the problem with Fiorina was execution, not strategy.

In a company’s HP’s size, however, that’s a serious problem. Once the merger with Compaq cleared regulatory and shareholder approvals, there was no looking back for HP. The focus turned to realizing the benefits and value of the combination, and that’s where Fiorina failed.

She did a creditable job promulgating the strategic vision, but she was out of her depth in integrating and and restructuring the merged company for commercial success in the field. Execution was not her forte, but after all the dust had settled, that’s exactly what HP needed most.

HP made the right decision in relieving Fiorina of her duties and bringing in a detail- and structure-oriented, rigorous, execution specialist as its CEO. It was the right call then, and it remains the right call in the pellucid light of hindsight.

There’s no reason to revise the view of Fiorina as an exceptionally intelligent marketing executive with a knack for vision and big ideas, but with an egregious blind spot when it came to operational efficiency and business execution. Nothing that has happened before, during, or after her ouster makes that picture any less accurate.

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