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Managing US easier than HP?

If you're feeling a little disconnected from the US Presidential campaign, good news: A former HP CEO has made it more interesting for you, the HP 3000 customer who has seen their system sent to the exits by that very same CEO's management.

Carlycampaign Of course, we're talking about Carly Fiorina, the only woman on earth who can be called a former CEO of HP. Naturally enough, her name surfaced during her campaigning for Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin. In what may first look like a joke at Palin's expense, the TV network Current TV said in its comedy show Campaign Update that Fiorina stepped out to claim nobody running for either party is sharp enough to run HP. Because it's so hard, she explained.

The layoff — oops, restructuring — of about 25,000 employees won't make running Hewlett-Packard any easier in the near term, now that EDS is a part of HP. But the acquisition of a $44 billion company fulfills one of Fiorina's dreams: To become a services provider on par with IBM, or better. Although she couldn't get the HP board to swallow up PriceWaterhouseCooper, her successor served up EDS instead. Like a Lance Armstrong of the Fortune 50, though, Fiorina isn't riding off into the sunset, instead popping up on TVs and comedy routines this week. Have a look at the last 45 seconds of the network's latest "Campaign Update" to watch a lighter look at the high-flying CEO's latest.

Fiorina was never appreciated for her candor while HP's CEO, and her comment put her in the McCain doghouse. She was booked for several TV interviews over the next few days, including one on CNN. Those interviews have been canceled.

Fiorina's legacy is being carried out by a corporate chief more similar to the rest of HP's CEOs: white male, up from the boardroom of a computer maker. And if you survey HP CEOs before Fiorina and the current Mark Hurd, you will find they have another common element: All were engineers with an affinity for technology. Not your Fiorina trademark, which might have contributed to the 3000 landing on the exit list for the company during the last major acquisition.

When HP's directors fired Fiorina less than four years later in 2005, the author of Perfect Enough, biographer George Anders, said HP might have been better served with a chief in 2001 who understood technology. From a Washington Post article:

 I think of her as a bull-market manager . . . someone who was very good at expanding the business in boom times, but who didn't really have good instincts for efficiency in tough times. When she'd cut, it was with lunges that didn't satisfy either the workforce or Wall Street.

And HP is in some very technologically complex businesses. I think a top executive at such a company needs a deep understanding of the tech to be effective.

It's easy to disagree with Anders, if the goal is to shed computer creations (such as MPE and Alpha) while getting more airtime for the chief executive. Young, meanwhile, left HP to sit as a director on seven corporate boards: Novell (vice-chair), Affymetrix, Chevron Corporation, International Integration, Inc., Lucent Technology, Smith Kline Beecham plc, and Wells Fargo & Co.

You might argue that no leader of a corporation of more than $100 billion would steward something like the 3000, an integrated enterprise solution with a specialized operating environment. And you'd win that argument, so long as nobody in the room could spell I-B-M. Why this matters to the HP 3000 customer, or soon-to-be former customer: Hewlett-Packard is making its biggest push to be a services company selling computer solutions, instead of the other way around. It's up to the customers to decide if they should vote their dollars for that leadership during 2009.