Skip to main content

After endless endorsements, the media are slowly turning against Carly Fiorina, the dynamic "power babe." The first big swipe came in May from

The New York Observer.

More recently, a cover story in


questioned her ability to turn



But the real issue is why a marketing expert was chosen to revivify an ossified bureaucracy losing out to the competition in all areas except printing and imaging.

The simple answer: The emphasis on celebrity and marketing has infected business at the top. The powerful H-P board, which masterminded Fiorina's selection, is just as impressed by press clippings and


appearances as the rest of us.

At one point, the board went so far as to hire a pricey search firm to "leadership test" top-flight candidates. The whip-smart Fiorina is rumored to have scored off the charts. Based on the scores, she has the ability to whip 90,000 employees at the 13th-largest company


in America into shape.

When it comes to massaging the media, Fiorina is a marketing genius. The love fest started in 1996 when the onetime sales rep at




public. She raised $3 billion for the IPO spin off from AT&T. It was the largest IPO in history at that time and put Carly in the spotlight. Deservedly so.

The young, blond, beautiful -- and female -- CEO is straight out of central casting -- Faye Dunaway without the edge. Originally from Austin, Texas (dad: law professor/mom: artist), Carly came armed with degrees -- B.A. (Stanford), M.S. (MIT) and an M.B.A. in marketing (Robert H. Smith). She was a secretary, teacher and law school dropout (UCLA) until she settled into her niche at AT&T in 1980.

Three times Carly won


magazine's 50 Most Powerful Women poll. The press frequently compared her with Tina Brown, Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. And


picked up on the glam connection: "Carly's Angels ... Can H-P Kick Butt?" Ann Livermore and Carolyn Ticknor were listed as her sidekicks at H-P.

H-P's Golden Girl Tarnished?

Except that Ann Livermore, a veteran H-P insider, was so sure she had the top job that she went out and bought a new Jag. Carly's arrival prompted her to take a cue and hire a P.R. agency to polish up her own image. She wasn't alone. During the tech run-up, CEOs became media gods. Silicon Valley rivaled Hollywood for happy-talk press releases.

Now, in the tech run-down, Carly is again in the limelight. Two short years on the job and she's received more press than Steven Ballmer (dorkish appeal is limited to the intelligentsia and


insiders), Louis Gerstner (too serious) and even Larry Ellison (the man the press loves to hate).

Of course, the press dwells on bad news and there are severe problems at H-P. Lewis Platt, regarded by employees as a great leader, had allowed H-P's 83 divisions to operate independently as long as they made their numbers. Fiorina fired 6,000 employees and centralized the company into three fiefdoms: printing, computer systems and IT.

But she is most criticized for her publicity ploy of consecrating the garage in which William Hewlett and David Packard founded the company in 1939. In the lobby, Carly's portrait now hangs in place of Platt's with the venerable founders.

With so many firings, many resent her $90 million salary (over four years). Others question how long platitudes and sound bites will sustain her. A master of mediaspeak, she specializes in vacuous slogans -- "Challenge the mind and capture the heart."

She describes H-P as "a winning e-company with a shining soul" and chants "preserve the best, reinvent the rest."

Carly attempts to stroke the troops with palaver. "HP is an important institution. It has an important history. It stands for important things." And she is quick to self-promote: "As CEO of an almost $50 billion company operating in 163 countries I will..." She is abandoning the theory that great leaders are about their organizations, not themselves.

Too be fair, Fiorina didn't create all the problems at H-P. And she has made necessary changes, such as replacing 30% of the top executives. Under her direction, reps from H-P labs now give weekly presentations to the board. Yet, with all the cost-cutting, it's questionable whether she will be able to increase funds for R&D.

H-P needs a strong CEO who understands the inner workings of the company and is accepted and endorsed by employees. But it also needs a slick, polished and attractive extrovert to deliver persuasive "mission statements" to Wall Street and the media. Carly seems to have only the latter half of this equation. Perhaps the only solution is dual CEOs. Bush and Cheney already figured this out.

Martha Smilgis is a journalist and novelist who writes "The Outraged Investor" column for The San Francisco Examiner. She doesn't hold positions in any of the stocks mentioned in the above column.