(WOMENSENEWS)--After Carleton S. Fiorina's forced resignation from Hewlett-Packard last week, authors who write about women and journalists who cover business are drawing mixed lessons and morals about what her precipitous fall from grace says about gender and corporate clout.
As the erstwhile leader of the computer and printer maker, Fiorina was the first woman to hold all three titles--president, chairman and chief executive officer--of a Fortune 500 company. Some called her the most powerful woman in corporate America. She was one of eight female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, the nation's largest 500 companies as ranked by Fortune magazine.
After a tumultuous five-and-a-half year tenure marked by stock declines, the hotly opposed $19 billion purchase of Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp. and repeated demands by board members to change her tough, aggressive style, the board of directors of the Palo Alto-based Hewlett-Packard asked her to leave.
In all of this, onlookers see a range of symbols and significances. Some say that whatever her specific circumstances, the sheer fact of her expulsion from such an elite group is a psychological blow to women. Others, however, see a new gender diversity in the ranks of banished corporate chiefs who are given plenty of financial consolation for their wounded reputations.
"Carly did not disgrace her office, company or herself," says Leslie Ungar, an executive coach based in Akron, Ohio. She'll be back, Ungar predicts, and notes that she set another precedent, walking away with at least $21 million in severance. "She got fired fair and square. If women want to be treated equally, that's part of the deal. To be kept on because she was female would have been unfair."
Carol Hymowitz, columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online, noted last week that after decades of fighting to be treated equally, women have gotten to a place where there is more of a playing field at the exit as well as the entrance door.
By way of comparison, in 2003, Richard Brown of Electronic Data Systems received more than $32 million in stock and cash; Richard Kogan of Schering-Plough got $13.2 million plus $26.4 million in retirement payments; and J. Harold Chandler of UnumProvident Corp. got $8.5 million in severance and an $8.5 million pension.
The problem that the episode creates for women and the women's movement, says Ungar, "is that there's not another Carly to carry the mantle."
Many others agreed.
"I do see this as a psychological blow for women. We lost a financial superhero," says Debran Rowland, an attorney in Chicago and author of "The Boundaries of Her Body: The Troubling History of Women's Rights in America."
"It's a setback in the never-ending struggle for professional women to reach the top echelon of major corporations," says Marjorie Brody, an executive coach in Jenkintown, Pa., and author of "Career Magic: A Woman's Guide to Reward and Recognition."
Did She Slip From Glass Cliff?
Some see features of the so-called glass cliff syndrome, in which a woman is asked to do a nearly impossible job--reinvigorating a slumbering Silicon Valley giant--and when she doesn't, she shoulders the blame and responsibility. In other words, it's a bit of a set up.
"What a hugely disappointing move for women in high places," says Larraine Segil, a partner in Vantage Partners, a consulting firm in Los Angeles. "A powerful, strong and focused leader, with firm views and great courage, pushed aside because she took risks and did what was unpopular; downsized, refocused, repositioned and had a vision for a large, complex and uncoordinated company with enormous intrinsic value and world class technology and market share."
Margaret Heffernan, author of "The Naked Truth: A Working Woman's Manifesto on Business and What Really Matters" who served as a former CEO of five companies, sees another rejection message from corporate America to ambitious women. "Men who get too big for their boots are idolized; women are punished for having ideas above their station and taken down."
Split in Personality Factor
People were split about the personality factor in this case.
Fiorina was unpopular with the Hewlett-Packard board from the start. Susan Bethanis, founder and president of Mariposa Leadership, Inc., a San Francisco leadership coaching firm, says women have a harder time playing a hardball corporate roll.
"I believe gender did play a factor," Bethanis says. "People have less tolerance for women who are brash or even bullying. When you combine the brashness with under-performance, it leads to this. Yet, think of the underperforming companies that have brash male CEOs."
At the same time, Bethanis thinks Fiorina made a mistake in not paying more attention to her in-house relationships. "No matter what gender you are, relationships are everything. If there's contention, you have to fix it and not keep pushing."
Moe Grzelakowski, author of "Mother Leads Best: 50 Women Who Are Changing The Way Organizations Define Leadership," a book soon to be released by Dearborn Trade Publishing that makes the case for motherhood as a route to the corporate suite, says Fiorina's "coldness" didn't help her.
"A lack of warmth can derail a career; you won't succeed," says Grzelakowski, who has researched top corporate women and the impact of motherhood on leadership style. Mothering changes a woman in a way that's advantageous in the corporate world, says Grzelakowski. "You learn to let go of the need to control everything; you let go of perfectionism; you're more flexible; more empathetic to employees. She wouldn't have failed if she had put others ahead of her own agenda."
Others take umbrage at the suggestion that women adopt any particular style. "People accept the brash, aggressive style of say a Jack Welch. But yet, you already hear that [HP board member] Patricia Dunn is quieter, more hands on, and there's a measure of relief with that," says lawyer and author Rowland. "Well, if we're really talking about equality, then in an ideal world it would be acceptable for a woman financial superhero to be more like a rock star than not."
But many others say this was about performance, or lack thereof.
Estimating that current average tenure of a CEO at between three to five years, Deborah Stephens, co-founder of The Center for Innovative Leadership in San Mateo, Calif., and author of "Leadership Lessons from the Fast Lane," says Fiorina's dismissal was in-line with the firings of male CEOs.
"Her gender played no role in her failure. She misread markets, was unable to re-create and sustain a winning culture at HP and she fell into some of the same traps that many of male counterparts have fallen into; failing in a merger. Ironically, it was another high powered woman who gave Carly the boot, Patricia Dunn," says Stephens.
Business strategist Saj-Nicole Joni, president of Cambridge International Group Ltd. in Massachusetts, says that the best thing business women could do with this event is to look at themselves in the mirror and wonder.
"How is it that she thought she had more time?" she asks. "How is that she thought she could stay 'on vision' and not worry if execution was lacking? How could she have missed the reality that the board would not wait and wasn't afraid to move fast?"
Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, N.Y., specializing in personal finance, general business and small business.
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