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Ex-CEO Wannabe Politican (Carly Fiorina) Hides Her Spots

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Carleton Fiorina is seeking to unseat Barbara Boxer as one of California's U.S. senators. Sarah Palin Wednesday endorsed Ms. Fiorina, among other things, stating that Fiorina had "a school teacher dad" (Joe Sneed was a law professor at Cornell, Dean of the Duke Law School, and a celebrated federal appeals judge -- a whole lot more than "a school teacher dad"). But this piece is about Fiorina, not her father or Palin.

Much like a Dalmatian, Fiorina has a number of spots on her coat.

Twenty-two women have reached the CEO suite since Jill Barad became the first at Mattel Toy in 1997, with Ursula Barnes the latest, at Xerox in summer 2009. Fifteen women CEOs (3% of Fortune 500 CEOs) currently are in office (50% of corporate middle level managers are women). Were I to rank women CEOs, I would rank Carleton Fiorina near the bottom:

• When she became Hewlett Packard CEO in July, 1999, HP was the U.S. 19th largest corporation. Fortune thereafter named Fiorina America's most powerful business woman, for 4 consecutive years. But as CEO for 6, Fiorina consistently made rosy predictions for HP revenues and profits, only to fail to deliver time after time. After an initial period, the HP stock price went down from the mid 50s as low as $15.50 and stayed there.

• HP employees detested Fiorina, feeling that she was out only for herself, not the welfare of the company, its employees, or its shareholders. She was perceived as mocking the ballyhooed "HP Way," the hands on "management by walking around" style and the homespun integrity H-P founders David Packard and Bill Hewlett personified. Employees termed her "Armani Carly" and "Chainsaw Carly," the latter after she caused 15,000 HP employees to be terminated.

• Fiorina's successor as HP CEO, Mark Hurd, has achieved astounding success by quiet leadership, rolling back many of the changes Fiorina put in place. Despite her claims to the contrary, Fiorina had little if anything to do with the success HP has enjoyed in recent years.

• Fiorina surrounded herself with "yes" men and women who would drink the Kool Aid she
dispensed. Unlike CEOs at almost every other public corporation, at HP Fiorina refused to partner with anyone at the top. Her refusal to have a chief operating officer, despite repeated urgings, caused the HP Board of Directors to fire her.

• Her ego knew no bounds. She appeared on more than 40 magazine covers her first year in office alone. She ran the "Carly Buzz Machine" and "All Carly, All the Time." She caused the company to acquire a Gulfstream luxury jet that she could use to fly appearances all over the world (e.g., 8 in the U.S., 5 in Asia, and 5 in Europe in one week).

As one HP manager said, "Carly can market the tar out of herself. That's what she's known for." At her previous employer, Lucent, an executive stated, "Carly Fiorina is truly focused on the success of Carly Fiorina..."

Fiorina did prove the pundits wrong on one score. They had predicted that the $24 billion merger of H-P with Compaq Computer would resemble "a slow motion film of two garbage trucks colliding" (Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems). The merger, which Fiorina rammed through at all costs, barely achieving a majority shareholder vote (52%), resulted in economies of scale such as software acquisition that enabled HP to take a place next to Dell as a personal computer industry leader. But at what cost? Fiorina oversaw (some say engineered) the departure from the H-P Board of the last 4 Hewlett and Packard family representatives on it (David Packard, Jr., Susan Packard Orr, Jean-Paul Gimon), which included Walter Hewlett, whom Fiorina mocks and vilifies to this day.

One anonymous HP manager asked while watching Fiorina's Buzz Machine, "Just whose brand is she building anyway?" Perversely, some of the negative qualities observers find Fiorina to have exhibited as a CEO (e.g., her relentless self promotion) may be the very ones political leaders want in a senatorial candidate. At first blush, in a political race, she will have no brand other than her own to promote. A further question is: what about California and what about California voters, after the election? Will she represent them, or just herself?

Douglas M. Branson is the Condon Falknor Professor at the University of Washington School of Law and W. Edward Sell Chair in Law at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of The Last Male Bastion - Gender and the CEO Suite at America's Public Companies (Routledge 2010).