Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More Fiorina follies

I have certainly written about former HP head Carly Fiorina before (one example here). To me, she reflects the very worst traits of the modern CEO. Her track record at Lucent and HP is well-known, just ask anyone who has worked for either of those once-proud companies. She is the epitome of the "active manager," the kind who comes into a situation to get things done with very little understanding of what is really going on or needed, but whose energy is seen as contagious or exciting. These people win awards, are rated highly in polls, get themselves on the covers of magazines, appear in their company's commercials, but rarely do these companies ever seem to profit from all this buzz.

One of the key personal attributes of this kind of "leader" is their unquenchable certitude about pretty much everything (and yes, if you see parallels to our current president, that is no accident). There is no problem that can fail to yield to their intellect, no situation that cannot be made into a win. In Fiorina's case, the win was the $21 million she received after being dismissed at HP, but we all measure things in different ways.

There has been a great deal of concern about John McCain's interest in and knowledge of the economy and technical matters. If you listen to what he's said on those two subjects, you would have to conclude that, if these are at all important to you, a vote for McCain would be disastrous...unless he can surround himself with the very best people...and listen to them.

Unfortunately, he has surrounded himself with Fiorina, an ersatz expert if ever there was one. Yesterday, Fiorina appeared at a breakfast with journalists, pushing ahead with the idea that admitted computer-illiterate John McCain is the best candidate for tech: "McCain knows the importance of technology to the economy and has an economic plan to encourage the type of innovation the industry thrives on, Fiorina said."

The pillars of that plan are, apparently, making the R&D tax credit permanent and permanently banning Internet taxation. I think the word "permanent" is always problematic, but more importantly, will those actions enhance the lives of Americans? It is clear that they will be a boon to companies, less clear that they will bring a net benefit to everyday citizens. (Actually, I don't think those are the most important things to worry about, but I have long been unimpressed with Washington's ability to set and keep priorities.)

The main point of this post, however, is to point out the essentially bankrupt set of ideas that are apparent here. McCain has admitted that he knows little about these matters, so Fiorina comes in to show, first, that McCain really does understand them and is on the right side, and second, who cares, because he's attracted the likes of Fiorina to his campaign. She, as vice president or secretary of Commerce, would play a vital role.

This logical house of cards, insupportable as it is (he's an expert but, if he's not, Carly's here to handle it), only even begins to stay erect if Fiorina is what she purports to be. If she has a unique vision, ideas on how to use technology to maintain America's position in the world, broad-based business know-how that can be applied to our many challenges, then maybe we buy into some of the rest of it.

But she has proven she doesn't have any of that. She was tested in the crucible of the fabled marketplace and found wanting. Her leadership skills are negative, as you would be hard-pressed to find anyone at either of her companies who would want her back.

Even if you argue that she was a competent, even wonderful, CEO, you are left with the basic incompatibility between the goals of the business community and the goals of the nation. If we want a VP or cabinet member who understands how to get more compensation for already rich people, then Fiorina might be a fine choice. But if we want someone who will deal with the very real issues that face this nation, even an optimized Fiorina would be a bad choice. And the real Carly is far from being an optimized Fiorina.

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