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Taking the Measure of HP's Ex-Leaders

We're waiting for more information about the HP 3000s still doing service by working with Apache CGI scripting, as well as an upcoming confluence of CAMUS advice about Stromasys and Kenandy, to help ERP companies to homestead or migrate. So while we wait let's take a break for Friday Funnies. The story is funny in the way a two-headed calf wants to win a blue ribbon at the fair.

The latest news in our election cycle features the prospects of a woman who impacted lives of many of our readers, as well as the direct fortunes of any who work at or have retired from HP. Or any who will be separated from the vendor soon in the latest layoffs.

BackfireThat would of course be Carly Fiorina, subject of scorn in both Donald Trump's eyes as well as derision from Yale economics professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. The professor wrote this week that Fiorina has learned nothing from her failures, or even admitted she's had any. And so, there's a criticism of his column afloat in the bowl of the 3000 world. Sonnenfeld's talks with former CEOs were not first-hand knowledge, the takeaway read.

Here I offer a subjective summary, and that criticism of the professor goes, "Do not measure Carly's impact on HP -- or her ability to lead -- by how other corporations fared during the same period when she was CEO. Or on the valuation of the company before and after. Measure her by how anybody would have fared, given what she took over starting in 1999. Also, understand that whatever you add up, it will be conjecture."

It's a good word. Conjecture is "an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information." By setting up a measurement problem so there is no constant -- to compare against, say, the veteran insider Ann Livermore, who HP passed over so Carly could get her job -- the measure will always be incomplete, clouded in imagination. In Catholic school, we were usually told at this point of our hard questions, "Well son, it's a mystery."

HP PhenomenonI believe the only way we'll ever see first-hand Carly-era information is an insider other than Carly who was an HP executive would write a book about the era. Say, Chuck House did that, didn't he? For those who don't know him, he was the leader of HP's software management, and that would include MPE. He was the only winner of what Dave Packard called HP's Medal of Defiance, for extraordinary defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty. In 2009 House wrote "The HP Phenomenon; Innovation and Business Transformations." House has quite a bit to say about Carly's leadership (lordy, pages 403, 427, 443, 460, 471, 477, 480, 497, and 597) her Compaq decisions.

There's also  a sheaf of pages indexed as "Vitriolic reaction." You probably would believe House has some first-hand experience of HP management, given that he was an executive manager throughout her HP service. House wasn't CEO, though. The only CEO who's created a book is Carly. She's so certain of her story she had to write two books.

Come to think of it, maybe conjecture won't be the best word here. 

When you look at the full history of HP's CEOs, it's not a group that's likely to deliver an insider's take on a hopeful story. After Bill and Dave retired from those posts, they died. John Young took the job and still lives, but he has enough sense to keep his head down in these leadership debates. Then there's Lew Platt (also retired and died), Fiorina, Hurd and Apotheker. Meg Whitman has been trying to pull HP's cart out of the ditch for more than four years. The latest tug is to pull away from the albatross PC business Fiorina pushed.

Fiorina's successors were bad, indeed. But no matter how bad any successor is, that doesn't change the mortal wound that the first savage can strike. A CEO who took the names of the founders off the company's logo, then removed one of their children from the board, might be summed up as having savage tactics. The leadership of Haiti comes to mind. Just search for "tontons macoutes" to get a peek at how such people stay in power. Haiti was once visited by cruise liners, before Papa Doc.

I was told a story by a well-loved HP executive who had the opportunity to lunch with his successor after retirement. "What in God's name has happened to HP stock?" he asked his replacement. It was second-hand experience the fellow was seeking, I suppose, to explain the first-hand experience that the retired manager was having over his retirement portfolio. I don't know who paid for lunch.

I continue to look for an HP employee or retiree who's feeling better about their portfolio, in the wake of Carly's ugly business decisions. Of course, once I hear that report, it will still be second-hand information. First-hand information, in case you were wondering, appears in print as "memoir" (business or otherwise) or "autobiography." Sometimes it could be labeled fiction, if its facts are not always so crucial. People do love a story.

I invite you to visit the bit of HP's story that includes choosing such a boat anchor for a CEO. "Perfect Enough" by George Anders includes a section where the author "discloses the role played by a powerful recluse in Idaho: the only person at HP who could bridge the old era and the new." That's the passing-over you read earlier, if I've kept you this far. As for that person's bridge, I think it's out. He's long gone, too.

In business, where Carly claims to have succeeded, the established coin of measurement is valuation. Either that, or love from the customers and employees. You don't need to be a professor of anything, let alone economics, to add up the former. Start your meters at the last HP stock split, in 2000. And for the latter measurement of love — well, you can go to the previous HP spinoff Agilent to find your Atomic Force Microscopes. I bet they still know something about measurement at Agilent.

We can't know if cruise liners will revisit the shores of the American dream in a Fiorina Administration. (My fingers just seized up trying to write those last two words together.) But it's not really conjecture about how HP's shoreline looked once her leadership dredged the company's passions for innovation.