Leaders need vision

When Hewlett-Packard Co. announces its quarterly earnings later this month, analysts and customers will be looking for further evidence that the Compaq merger is bringing the benefits that Carly Fiorina promised when she aggressively stumped for the deal in the fall of 2001. So far the results look promising.

HP surprised Wall Street in the previous quarter by reporting a profit of 12 cents per share during one of the most difficult times in history for IT vendors. And while consulting revenue is off and customer-support revenue is flat, there’s evidence that HP’s managed services and outsourcing operations are growing.

So where’s the chorus of praise for Fiorina?

The media pilloried her – though there were some exceptions – for dragging HP toward an unworkable destiny within a decaying industry. They lambasted her for being blind to the founding vision of William Hewlett and David Packard, sacrificing jobs and the company’s very existence for the purportedly ill-conceived plan of combining with Compaq.

Instead, her strategy is winning out. In his recently published book, Perfect Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett-Packard, George Anders reveals several things about Fiorina and her drive and character that should serve as lessons for all would-be leaders.

First, you must have a vision of what you want to accomplish. That sounds pedestrian, but Walter Hewlett, who opposed the merger, misjudged the strength of Fiorina’s vision and lacked an alternative one – and lost his battle with her.

Second, you must have the commitment to see your vision through. Fiorina clearly was committed to the merger. At one point, the investor vote to approve the merger hung in the balance. It would have been easier for her if she had presented an alternative for HP if the deal was voted down. According to Anders, she never did because “she wanted to project constant certainty that the HP-Compaq merger was the right choice for the company and that she was confident most shareholders would agree in due time.” Any inkling she wasn’t convinced would have hurt her cause.

The same is true of any leader who tries to engage and motivate people to follow a difficult or unpopular route. It’s wiser to show courage and determination to achieve a specific goal than to set out distracting alternatives or a Plan B.

Of course, vision has to be thought out and responsive to market changes, but wavering in front of the very people who look to you for leadership – no matter how touchy-feely the management books tell you to be – doesn’t inspire respect. And it certainly won’t help your results.

Fox is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact him at pimmfox@pacbell.net.