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Carly Fiorina Interview: Marissa's Ban on Working From Home and HP's Future

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Do you remember when female leaders at the top of Silicon Valley companies were hard to find? Well, they still are. But at least now, there are a few more than there were. Only 14 years ago, Carly Fiorina was the first. She took the helm of Hewlett-Packard, becoming the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company. Since then, she has become an active political voice, run for U.S. Senate and started the One Woman Initiative.

I had the opportunity to interview Carly Fiorina this week at the Harvey Nash Leadership Lecture in New York, where she spoke about diversity in the workplace and the challenges leaders face today in the current marketplace. I was thrilled to get her take on a few hot-button issues, including Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's recent ban on working from home. Fiorina, who served as CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, also gave me some insight on what she thought HP needed to do in order to succeed in the competitive tablet market.

One of her focuses in the lecture was how to build a diverse workforce. She mentioned that when she came to HP, they had an incredibly homogeneous senior leadership team and when she left, nearly half of the people that reported to her were women. However, she said that within nine months, 60 percent of the female senior leaders had left. So I started with that question first:

Why do women leave before they make it to the top?

I think women are really attuned to the environment in which they operate, so if they feel as though they are not valued or appreciated, or they don't have chances, they tend to bail. Building a diverse workforce is still something that takes a lot of work and a lot of time and is fragile, and I think I quoted those statistics to remind people of the fragility of it. You can't just set it on autopilot and think it's all going to work out -- it won't.

Marissa Mayer just recently banned working from home at Yahoo!, thoughts on that?

I think that -- look -- what we're struggling with here is both the possibilities and limitations of technology. I tend to avoid black and white pronouncements. I think work at home is a very valuable tool in the arsenal of helping employees be most productive by giving them some additional options for balancing what is a complicated set of choices. There's no question that there are times when you have to look and see somebody face-to-face. I don't know the particulars of what Marissa is dealing with inside her company, but myself, I tend to stay away from black and white decisions -- it's a tool, working at home is a tool.

And how did you handle that kind thing at HP? Was that something that even came up?

We had more of it over the course of my tenure than at the beginning of my tenure -- because we had a lot more job sharing for example. Job sharing turned out to be a really attractive option for a lot of people, particularly women who wanted to stay in the workforce but couldn't at that particular point in their lives give it full-time. So for us, it was a really great tool to help bring and keep talented people on board.

Are you seeing more women in technology in the higher echelons than when you were at HP?

A. Well, clearly. Look at the people in leadership positions in some of these Silicon Valley icons Yahoo!, Facebook -- they're women in leadership positions. That wasn't the case when I was there. So we're making progress in terms of who's in the head office for sure, and we have a lot further to go as the general numbers about what's going on in the boardroom attest.

Who are some of the women leaders that you watch?

I know most of them -- whether its Marissa or its Sheryl [Sandberg] -- these are wonderfully bright and accomplished women, and I'm still struck by the fact that women in workplace are too often talked about in the context of gender. When two men disagree, we don't obsess about the fact that they're two men disagreeing, we focus on the substance of the disagreement (laugh). Yet, when women have a different point of view -- it's 'oh my gosh' women have a different point of view -- well of course women have a different point of view-- there are a lot of women and we don't all think alike. So I wish that we would get to the place where gender wasn't always the first context in which we talked about very accomplished women.

And in that context, if that were a male CEO of Yahoo! saying no more working from home, how do you think that would have been perceived?

Oh I think it would have gotten a lot of attention, I really do. Look, Yahoo! is a company in the midst of yet another turnaround, they're an important Silicon Valley company, so whoever the CEO is, will get a lot of attention. Work-at-home has been such a part of Silicon Valley culture. Silicon Valley in some ways pioneered work-at-home, so to have a CEO say 'we're not going to do it anymore' is going to be news no matter what. Unfortunately for her, Marrissa takes on this added burden, which may not be fair, which is 'but you're a working mom -- don't you understand?'

And she just had a child, and she's got an attachment on her office, apparently, where her child can be taken care of - so i think that's part of the backlash....

Well, not every woman has the options that she has. You know a lot women are really struggling to make it all work, and I think its why work-at-home, telecommuting is a good option for a lot of women, it helps them balance a pretty heavy load.

Do you still follow Hewlett Packard?

Sure.

They recently said they want to be the number one computer vendor in the world, and they're jumping into tablets- do you think they'll be able to do it?

Time will tell. HP has been the number one computer vendor in the world, so there's no reason they shouldn't be able to do it, but time will tell. It all depends upon the choices they make now, but it will require ongoing a very substantial investment in both innovation and marketing, things that prior to Meg Whitman's tenure were slashed too much.

They're coming out with their first tablet Slate 7, any thoughts?

No, not yet. We'll see.

You can see more of her thoughts on Hewlett-Packard and Dell going private at BestTechie.com.