Fiorina defends rocky tenure as HP CEO

Carly Fiorina’s political future depends on whether she can defend her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

The likely GOP presidential candidate is aiming to do just that in her new book Rising to the Challenge, set to be released May 5, a day after the expected launch of her 2016 campaign. Fiorina now claims the company’s decision to fire her in 2005, after a turbulent six-year tenure, was a result of a dysfunctional board of directors and not her leadership.

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In an interview with The Hill, Fiorina said members of her own board leaked confidential information to the media to undermine her decisions, though she stopped short of alleging outright sexism. She was the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company.

“Men understand other men’s need for respect, but they don’t always understand women’s need for respect,” Fiorina said. “The situation that transpired in the boardroom was all about certain board members wanting to protect their position when they felt threatened, because their behavior was against the code of conduct, and they knew that I as a leader would not tolerate that conduct.”

When asked again if she thought underlying sexism contributed to her firing, she said, “There’s no question that women in positions of authority are scrutinized differently, criticized differently and characterized different.”

Following her departure, she said HP officials monitored her phone calls to see if she had been the one leaking the negative information. 

“Set aside the legality for a moment — that is a terrible practice for a board to engage in, and it’s evidence of their dysfunction,” she said. 

HP declined to comment for this article.

Officials ended up settling the charges brought by California officials.

Fiorina and her supporters say she was the right leader for a tough job, navigating an old company through a technology recession and planting seeds for long-term growth, doubling the company’s size. 

But her critics say she shifted as many as 30,000 jobs overseas, a charge Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) levied at her during Fiorina’s failed 2010 Senate campaign, her only previous bid for elective office. 

Both critics and supporters portray her as a determined leader. She was ousted, detractors say, partly because of declining stock price and a controversial merger with Compaq that butted heads with HP’s founders’ vision for the future.

Still, she said President George W. Bush called to offer her a job in his administration the day after she was fired, though she declined to say which one.

Another phone call she received was from the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. She said he urged her to take her time and not do anything for at least six months. She said Jobs told her HP would “regret” firing her one day.

She described Jobs as a friend, recalling one time when he called her cellphone for a “meeting,” which turned into a friendly walk in Stanford, Calif., where he vented about Apple’s stock price.

“The strategy that HP adopted, a strategy of diversification of systems and products, wasn’t conventional wisdom, but it was, in fact, where the industry was going,” Fiorina said. “The fact the media didn’t see it doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. It’s not surprising to me that the conventional wisdom wouldn’t understand what was happening in the industry until it was very obvious.”

Fiorina is hardly a presidential front-runner. But as the only likely female Republican presidential candidate, she has an important place in the field. 

She is often mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick to the eventual Republican nominee. And her supporters praise her fiery speeches that frequently take on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.

But her business record has resurfaced as she’s stepped back into the media limelight. Earlier this month, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski confronted Fiorina about her business record during a contentious appearance.

“You had a tenure at Hewlett-Packard that a lot of people describe as extremely rocky, destroying jobs and destroying the company’s reputation. Are you really the right person to be criticizing Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments or lack thereof?” Brzezinski asked.

Jason Burnett, grandson of the late HP co-founder David Packard, criticized Fiorina’s leadership in an interview with The Hill. 

“My grandfather David Packard had a real belief that the employees created the value in the company,” said Burnett, a member of the Packard Foundation Board of Trustees. 

Burnett said “that worked for many, many decades and built HP into one of the greatest companies of the 20th century.”

“Carly took that and completely dismantled it,” he said.

Fiorina said she made tough choices that were best for the company.

“Change is like heaven: Everyone wants to go there, but nobody wants to die. Everybody thinks change is great theoretically, but the process is hard,” she told The Hill. 

Her allies push back against the Packard family’s criticism, arguing Fiorina was hired as an outsider to add new energy to the company.

“She was the right leader at the right time,” said Bill Mutell, a senior vice president during her tenure. “She displayed a lot of courage. … Without her, HP would have further accelerated its demise in the marketplace.”

A source close to Fiorina said that her Senate campaign, during which she was recovering from breast cancer, as detailed in the book, wasn’t as prepared for Boxer’s attacks against her business record.