Why Carly Fiorina is Wrong

A lot of people in Silicon Valley have been talking about former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s recent comments that neither of the presidential candidates or their running mates could run a major corporation.

Many criticize her comments as being elitist and perpetuating the belief that, business executives have a halo around their heads and can do anything from running a company to a country. Given that her HP employees toasted champagne glasses when she was fired, it is fair to say many at HP, including the board of directors, thought Fiorina was not qualified to run a major corporation either.

The fact that Fiorina replaced the pictures of HP founders with pictures of herself is just one example of how she may want to take a look in the mirror before critiquing others’ leadership. If her actions at HP were any indication, one could only imagine what her first move as president would be—replacing the Lincoln Memorial with a statue of herself?

Numerous politicians (whether you like them or not) have made successful CEO’s after careers in politics. After a long career in public service, Dick Cheney took over a Fortune 500 company in Halliburton and was extremely successful. Donald Rumsfeld, after spending his entire life in politics, took over as CEO of G.D. Searle & Company– a global pharmaceutical company. During his time as CEO, Rumsfeld led the company’s turnaround and was named as the Outstanding Chief Executive Officer in the Pharmaceutical Industry from the Wall Street Transcript (1980) and Financial World (1981). Even Al Gore has done a decent job of transforming himself from a career politician to a business executive, acting on the board of Apple, as an advisor to Google, and as founder of Current TV.

That is not to say that every politician would make a good CEO, but leadership and having technical operating experience in an industry are two different things. Fiorina is correct to argue that none of the candidates have the technical operating management experience necessary to understand the computer industry, but is wrong to imply that these candidates do not have the leadership traits necessary to run a corporation. Still, her criticism does make one wonder about the transfer of leadership from one occupation to the next.

As governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin—perhaps the most criticized of the candidates—is responsible for the state budget, the board of education, the National Guard, the state police, the taxing of its citizens, the appointment of judges, and a number of other responsibilities. In addition, Palin has to be knowledgeable about issues such as drilling in Alaska and its impact on the environment. Yet, Fiorina thinks Sarah Palin is not fit to decide what model laptop to release next Christmas.

Leadership is the ability to find the right people and then motivate, organize, and direct them to the accomplishment of a common objective. While having operating experience in an industry is a major plus, without strong leadership skills, no amount of experience matters.

For example, if either John McCain or Barack Obama were to run Spock.com, each would bring a distinctive style of leadership. With Spock’s objective to create the best people search on the Web, it’s safe assume that neither Obama nor McCain would be familiar with the challenges and technology surrounding people search. However, there are other areas in which they each would excel.

If Obama ran Spock, I am sure he would do a great job of fundraising for the company and getting the message out to millions of people about how Spock is attempting to bring about change in the way people can locate each other and find information. Similar to his choice of an internationally experienced VP—Joe Biden—Obama would most likely hire a competent COO to help direct the company and to aid in understanding the inner workings of a search engine.

McCain, on the other hand, could be just as successful. With a maverick style of leadership and his “us against everyone else” attitude, McCain would appeal to many investors and employees. Should something go wrong, such as a server going down, I could picture him sticking around the office overnight until the site was back up and running (as Meg Whitman did with Ebay a while back). Additionally, McCain would do a good job of seeking to partner with other companies.

While they may not agree on the same issues or lead in the same way, it’s fair to say that both Obama and McCain would bring a unique quality of desirable leadership, whether to the presidency, a corporation or a start-up.

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