The evolving saga of America's CEOs
At first blush, the Carly Fiorina story seems like that of a highly visible female CEO perceived to have failed. But her firing as head of Hewlett-Packard sheds some light on how business is changing, no matter what the gender of the person in the corner suite.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Indeed, the executive turmoil at HP shows that corporate boards, in a post-Enron world, are becoming more active overseers. This means close scrutiny of the wheeling and dealing, the acquisitions, the corporate culture, even the pay package.
And CEOs under the microscope, such as Ms. Fiorina, are finding they have less time to produce results. In fact, a CEO's tenure at the top is starting to look a lot like a politician's term in office with a small group of voters sitting around a boardroom table.
"We now live a world of transparency, responsibility, and action," says David Kotok, chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors in Vineland, N.J. "The old country-club board of directors is now past."
Indeed, while pundits and press try to put their own spin on Fiorina's ouster and what it means for women executives, tricky mergers, or celebrity CEOs, "what it actually means is that the board did its job," says Rosabeth Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of "Confidence," a book about leadership. "The performance hasn't been good, and they were concerned about the performance in the future."
As boards step up, the heat is being felt in the top office. In January, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the Chicago-based outplacement firm, reported a near record 92 CEOs got the boot or retired. This is the highest figure since February 2001 when 119 CEO changes took place.
"The CEO is on the hot seat," says John Challenger, who heads the outplacement firm. "Your mistakes aren't forgiven. They pile up, and, eventually, they outweigh your gains, unless you have an unbroken string of wins."
Mr. Challenger sees this as both positive and negative. "We have fewer CEOs who are worlds unto themselves ... but the shorter tenures also have their own complications," including a lack of continuity and job security, and frequent changes in direction of corporate strategy.
Such change is especially noticeable when it involves female CEOs. Before Fiorina was ousted there were only eight women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Now there are seven. "When one of them leaves, a great percentage chunk of women in power is gone," says Larraine Segil, a partner at Vantage Partners.
Yet Ms. Segil, like many others, believes the HP action was "gender neutral." "I don't think it had anything to do with Carly being a woman. I think any male CEO could have been fired in the same way, and that's probably good thing for women."
Other female executives thought the change showed that women can fail just like a man. "It's all part of playing the game - it doesn't mean you always win. You have to have the opportunity to lose too," says Davia Temin, the president of Temin & Co., a New York marketing firm.
In fact, some female CEOs believe the industry is past making gender a part of negotiations. "Women at [high] levels compete with men equally, so I don't think it's a male-female issue, but an internal matter to companies," says Joan Myers of the North Carolina Electronics and Information Technology Association in Raleigh.
Last summer, Catalyst released a survey that found that 55 percent of women and 57 percent of men in senior corporate positions aspired to be the CEO.