Fiorina's formula for change in Silicon Valley

Female CEO wants to make Hewlett-Packard's stodgy image more dynamic.

A few weeks before she was named the new top executive of Silicon Valley's most venerable technology firm, Carleton Fiorina pricked the region's air of self-importance with a pointed criticism.

Speaking at a Stanford University conference while still an executive at New Jersey-based Lucent Technologies Inc., she chastised Silicon Valley for being a bit insular and narrow-minded.

"You could use a little more diversity of approach," she said.

Now that she's in town, settling in this week at Hewlett-Packard Company, Ms. Fiorina will get a chance to demonstrate just what she meant. Already clear though, is that "Carly" Fiorina is no fan of the status quo.

As a top executive at Lucent, Fiorina helped crack the so-called glass ceiling for women in corporate America. And now, as the top-ranking female in the nation's most dynamic industry, Fiorina is charting new territory for women in the workplace.

"This is good news," says Jennifer Allyn of Catalyst, a New York advocacy and research group that tracks women in corporate America. "It sends a powerful message to women and young girls that they can succeed as leaders."

Somewhat surprisingly, the industry does not have a strong record of women officers and board directors. A gender tilt in favor of males runs throughout the technology sector, from those who use computers at a young age, to male-oriented computer games and programs, to the corporate hierarchy of the top technology firms.

Few women at the top

That gender bias is particularly noticeable among Fortune 500 firms, where Fiorina's ascent has single-handedly boosted the number of women CEOs by 50 percent - from two to three.

Fiorina didn't make a lot of the gender issue when named head of HP, but her own rsum offers a rebuttal to the stereotypes of why women's ranks so often thin at the top of the corporate ladder.

Women are often perceived by their male coworkers as having less commitment to career and less willingness to relocate. As Fiorina navigates a cross-country move with the help of her stay-at-home husband, and cranks up for her famous early-riser conference calls, no one doubts her fervor for making her mark in the corporate arena.

Indeed, Fiorina's willingness to goad Silicon Valley-ites at the electronic commerce conference in late June seems typical of a take-no-prisoners style that is her trademark, according to those that have worked with her.

Lucent senior vice president Kathy Fitzgerald, who worked with Fiorina for nine years, calls Fiorina "thoughtfully provocative." While she likes to "stimulate different thoughts and approaches," she never does so needlessly.

Dan Plunkett, a managing director of Delta Consulting Group, worked closely with Fiorina in the 1996 spin-off of Lucent from AT&T and describes her as a smooth, tough, and effective leader. "She's in a class by herself."

Firm but adaptable, her style changes to meet the need, says Mr. Plunkett. "If what's required is an open, friendly approach, she goes there. But if a harder edge is needed, she can butt heads with the best of them."

There is little doubt she'll need all her toughness to bring a new sense of urgency to HP, America's fourth-largest computermaker struggling to move to the speed of the Internet era.

If there is one firm that embodies the roots of Silicon Valley's technology prowess, it is HP. Born in a small Palo Alto garage, run by the genteel but hard-driving David Packard and William Hewlett, HP carved a reputation for being not only successful, but good to its employees. The Packard and Hewlett fortunes have turned into large charitable foundations, indicative of a social consciousness not always found among the valley's more recent generation of start-ups.

Yet, by Silicon Valley standards, HP has become a bit stodgy. It's test-equipment business was spun off earlier this year in order to let the computer and printer side of the company develop a more nimble persona.

Onward and upward

On this new course, Fiorina is apt to practice the "roughly right" approach to decisionmaking she practiced at Lucent, say many who have tracked her career.

Credited as a whiz in grasping what customers want and getting the staff around her to understand and meet those needs, Fiorina had little patience for internal, bureaucratic bottlenecks at Lucent. When things were "roughly right," Fiorina would launch, rather than waiting until every internal question had been answered, say former colleagues.

Transforming HP into an Internet-services company will not only take a huge amount of internal retooling, but will also need to be done at near-lightening speed.

That too would seem to be right up Fiorina's alley. At the Stanford conference in June, she was unequivocal in the need for speed to compete and win in today's technology marketplace. As he put it, "Faster is better than slower. Always, always, always."

While analysts bemoan the increasingly foreshortened view within corporate America, driven by stockholders' demand for ever higher quarterly profits, Fiorina says her shorter time horizon has nothing to do with stocks: "It's about the pace of change, not just what Wall Street wants."

The daughter of an abstract artist and a judge, Fiorina is regarded as well-rounded intellectually and, while interested in the deeper side of things, is intensely competitive and not given to idle musings.

"She's in this thing to win," says Plunkett, and like many leaders, finds the pace and challenge at the top stimulating and satisfying, "not a source of stress or tension."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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