Books: When the going gets tough ...

The career of the world's first global businesswoman is an object lesson in both the opportunities and stumbling-blocks facing women at work, says Val Gooding.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This book is a first: the first autobiography by a female CEO of a major business. Carly Fiorina topped Fortune's list of the world's most powerful businesswomen five years running, making her famous everywhere. The publisher's blurb has 'Victim' written all over it. It suggests the author believes she was 'a target for everyone who disliked her bold leadership style and resented her rapid rise'. Don't be put off. Although the book is occasionally self-indulgent in this respect, in the circumstances Fiorina can be forgiven.

It's an intriguing read, opening with the words: 'In the end, the board did not have the courage to face me. They did not thank me and they did not say goodbye.' Fiorina's story takes you right through her career to that day when she left Hewlett-Packard.

The determination that was to mark her later career had its origins in her childhood: parents who 'pursued excellence in everything they did' and 'were not sympathetic to fear, insecurity or self-doubt'. Despite her best efforts to please, 'there were many times when I felt as though no matter what I did, it simply wasn't quite as much as they expected ... When I came home with my first report card, which contained one B and seven A's, they reminded me that I was capable of straight A's.'

Fiorina claims she wrote every word of this book, and I think that's likely to be true. After college (medieval studies at Stanford) and an unfinished law school course, a receptionist's job and an MBA, she began her climb up the corporate ladder at telecoms company AT&T. She started in sales, subsequently moving to a top position at the spinoff company Lucent, and was finally headhunted for the CEO job at Hewlett-Packard.

This book will be an inspiration to anyone trying to build a business career. It is chock-full of examples of dealing with tough situations, both successes and failures: from how to approach a new job to dealing with a visit to a strip club, confronting sexism, earning respect, building teams, leading effectively, coping with failure, exploiting opportunities, winning a vicious battle for shareholders' votes, right through to remaining dignified when you've been fired.

Her thoroughness, attention to detail, professionalism, hard work and, most of all, her courage, shine out. Her leadership during the HP/Compaq merger and the proxy fight showed determination, focus, and leadership.

But, of course, we only hear one side of the story. She does have detractors, and is often described as 'charismatic but controversial'.

Some say she was abrasive, insufficiently self-aware, disliked by employees, and that although strong on strategy, she lacked operational capability.

It has also been said that she courted the limelight; and that, as a woman, she received an unprecedented amount of media scrutiny.

Her photo was everywhere, and when I first saw her at an international conference, her face was so familiar that I felt I was being introduced to an old friend.

One has to ask: would the judgment of her record at HP have been less harsh if she were a man? There are divided views on whether her tenure at the company and the merger with Compaq were a success: critics say the deal was too expensive, the integration too slow and the results unimpressive.

Was her sudden firing justified? The manner of it was certainly clumsy and unmerited. The HP board now looks seriously dysfunctional, and the recent disclosures have plunged it into disarray.

Its employees and shareholders deserved better and so, surely, did its chief executive. Perhaps if the roles of CEO and chairman had not been integrated (a combination that exists in 70% of US companies), the board would have worked more effectively and acted more patiently. Also, Fiorina, one presumes, would have had HP's chairman as a mentor to guide her handling of the board.

So what's the moral of Tough Choices? It is tougher for women to get to the top and stay there - the gender issues can't be ignored. But the most memorable lesson for me is how important each individual member of the board is - 'getting the right people on your bus' is vital, as you never know when you're going to need to rely on their honesty and integrity.

These qualities seem to have been absent at HP, as both the leaks and their subsequent investigation have highlighted so vividly. How ironic that the leading value in the old 'HP way' was 'uncompromising integrity'.

As she reflects on her record against the continuing media reaction to the latest HP revelations, Fiorina must be wondering if she might have chosen her boardroom colleagues better. But at least she has the satisfaction of knowing she got one thing right: the publication date of this memoir.

Tough Choices: A memoir
Carly Fiorina
Nicholas Brealey
mt price £15.50
To order, visit


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