Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/01/10/carly_tough_review/

Carly of La Mancha

Tough Choices is a tough sell

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Data Centre, 10th January 2007 22:56 GMT

Review It's good to see that a couple years away from the executive ranks haven't diminished Carly Fiorina's embrace of the delusional. Her recent memoir Tough Choices confirms that the same quixotic persona behind HP's yo-yo impression lives on safely in semi-retirement.

Regular readers will know that Fiorina has received a drubbing in these virtual pages over the years. Such criticism, however, came from a place of fascination for Fiorina.

Your reporter, in fact, suffers from an unhealthy Fiorina obsession. Fiorina and I share the same birthday. Her father taught my father at the University of Texas law school. We both have Texas roots, spent time living in Africa and claim strong ties to the UK. And I have both an HP t-shirt and a copy of Tough Choices signed by the pink slip princess. [There you go.]

These biographical ties have fanned a fawning respect for Fiorina, particularly for her intelligence and public speaking gifts. I've never seen a better performance than Fiorina's fierce question and answer session with shareholders during the bitter HP/Compaq proxy battle. Fiorina was Clintonian, but without the moist cigar baggage.

But Fiorina always seemed to wash away her positives by refusing to accept responsibility for her mistakes. She would dance around poor quarterly performances by blaming the sad showings on a one-time technology glitch, confused customers or lackluster efforts by other executives. Fiorina's earnings calls were so far from reality that some reporters and analysts wondered if she wasn't bordering on telling flat out lies.

Even worse, a calloused Fiorina did not come off well when she fired thousands and thousands of workers. She claimed to feel incredible remorse for the moves but lacked the history of sincerity necessary to make you believe her grimace.

With Tough Choices, I hoped Fiorina would be brave enough to cast off her shield of unaccountability and present a more accurate picture of the real gal. Fiorina has spent years complaining about the media's unrealistic, unfair portrayal of her character. What better way to set the record straight than by giving the readers the good, the bad and the ugly.

Fiorina comes closest to looking human on pages 6, 36, 55,56, 69, 148 and 168 when she breaks down in tears. The crying fits occur for a variety of reasons ranging from professional to personal. The reader receives a vulnerable Fiorina quite different from the unflinching CEO.

[Fiorina talks about writing the book and being a businesswoman here, during one of the stops on her book tour.]

But, despite the prevalence of the crying episodes, Fiorina refuses the reader the satisfaction of seeing her as tender in the end. After a run in with a chauvinistic co-worker, Fiorina declares on page 70 that "I made a decision. I would not cry again over others' prejudice . . . I came close to crying during the proxy battle at Hewlett-Packard, and closer still when I left HP, but since 1986 I have saved my tears for more important things: my family, the beauty of nature, Beethoven, a dear friend, the goodness of people, their wisdom, their tragedies or their triumphs."

Fiorina signs copies of her book at a Mountain View bookstore

Throughout Tough Choices, Fiorina experiences a number of these life shifting, "I Will Not Cry Again" moments. The young executive, for example, tackles several seemingly futile jobs while working for AT&T and Lucent. Rather than letting the situation get her down, Fiorina vows to make something of the situation and - you guessed it - always makes something spectacular. She encourages downtrodden peers to do their best. She turns bookkeeping quirks into massive money savers for AT&T. And, while she doesn't turn water into wine, Fiorina does pound gin and tonics and whiskey to prove that she's one of the boys.

[Fiorina discusses one drinking binge here.]

It's like a Horatio Alger rags to riches tale for MBAs.

Most reviews of Tough Choices have focused on the harsh words Fiorina has for former Compaq CEO Mike Capellas. The Alphacidal executive is described as "moody, inconsistent, depressed and disengaged."

The same reviews have also gone over Fiorina's struggle with the HP board and the beginnings of the HP spy scandal experienced firsthand by Fiorina, who was a leak suspect.

The boardroom drama business fails to inspire much interest here. Anyone capable of reading a newspaper could discern the dysfunction that consumed HP's upper management. Still, Fiorina spends about one-third of the book discussing such things - no doubt to please gossip mongers and to sell more copies. And why not?

More compelling is the very structure of Touch Choices and its grand omissions.

The book offers the most obvious evidence to date that Fiorina does indeed plan to run for public office.

Fiorina lugs a few skeletons out of the closet such as new information on her broken first marriage. Lucent and HP's public relations handlers made this topic off-limits during interviews with Fiorina. In the book, Fiorina dedicates a three page chapter to the Ex. She never explicitly says what occurred but hints that, "One weekend I discovered that he wasn't at the office working as he'd said he was" and later that the Ex had taken more than his fair share of financial control over their combined accounts.

I could not believe that someone I thought I knew so well, someone I had trusted and loved, could behave in this way. It was the first time I fully understood how threatened some men are by capable, successful women. I would experience it again and again in the workplace, but to discover it in by marriage was a searing revelation.

I had been raised to believe that what you are is God's gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God. How could someone who loved you resent that? In retrospect, this all sounds hopelessly naive, but to this day I underestimate people's capacity to abuse my trust and the insecurity that sometimes drives them.

That's some juicy stuff, and it's as good as Tough Choices gets. The only other skeletons that Fiorina brings out are thing such as her childhood insecurities or later her adult insecurities. Both of which she overcomes through strength of will, determination, pluck, intelligence, directness, business savvy, good looks, vision and all the other qualities that Fiorina sees as making her so adept at facing tough choices and thriving.

[Will Fiorina go into politics? Hear her dodge the question here.]

Oh, Fiorina does also include a photo of herself well-soaped in the bathtub with her stepdaughters but that seemed far more desperate than riveting.

Instead of proving that she learned anything from the HP experience, Fiorina leaves the reader with a helping of hokum.

You're told things such as,

There was a time in history when we could assume that because someone lacked opportunity, they lacked potential. We now know this is not true. Every single person has potential inside them, and the right leadership, the right technology and the right collaboration can unlock that potential.

Fiorina speaks at a Mountain View bookstore

And.

In the twenty-first century, for the time in human history, anyone can lead. Of course injustice and prejudice and inequity are still realities. Nevertheless, today leadership has nothing to do with title or money or power. Leadership is not about gender or the color of one's skin; it is not about physical gifts or national origin. WIth the right support and the right opportunities, anyone can lead from anywhere at any time.

Dare it be suggested that Fiorina has become too enamored with her own "we live in a connected world" rhetoric?

Fiorina seems to think that she really gets at the meat of the whole HP debacle. But she never does. She dances around the criticism of her decision making and continues to place blame on others. It's the kind of maneuvering you would expect from a politician - the type of creature that refuses to admit any wrongs even in a memoir.

Fiorina spoke in Clintonian proportions and writes in the same Clintonian tradition. She even had the same lawyer as Clinton broker her book deal.

If you want to read how Fiorina the quixotic politician in waiting views her life, pick up Tough Choices. It's certainly a clear, relatively concise exploration of Fiorina's youth, rise at AT&T, time at HP and ouster. Just beware of the blinders. They hurt. ®