The Most Powerful Woman in Business


Tough Choices

by Carly Fiorina

New York: Portfolio, 2006, 319 pp., $24.95, hardcover


Reviewed by Sumru Erkut


In 1998, when Carly Fiorina was an executive vice president at Lucent Technologies, she received word that she would be featured in the number one spot on Fortune magazine’s inaugural list of “The Fifty Most Powerful Women in Business.” She writes in her memoir Tough Choices that although she was flattered, she thought the list was a bad idea. What troubled her was its gendered nature: “[The list] implies that business is like tennis or golf or soccer—there’s a women’s ladder or team, and the men’s. Women have to compete against one another because they can’t compete with men.” After all, she explains, Fortune does not publish a list of the fifty most powerful men—an omission for which many of her male colleagues have said they are grateful, especially when they read stories in the media of women whose standing has dipped a few notches. In fact, after Lucent, Fiorina moved on to become chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, and remained in the number one position on the list for six consecutive years.

Fiorina’s reaction to the Fortune list encapsulates some of the main messages of her memoir. She understands the role of gender in business, and in her career, but even though she is the first woman CEO of a Fortune 50 company, she does not focus primarily on gender. Rather, she presents her story as a series of decisions (hence the title Tough Choices), which she implemented with persistence, exhaustive study, and hard work. She does not present her rise from receptionist to CEO and her subsequent fall, when she was fired by her board, as a cautionary tale for other women who aspire to the corner office. Yet she does not miss opportunities to describe the sexism, both obvious and covert, that she encountered along the way. When a client insisted on holding a business meeting in a strip club, she attended anyway, an incident that has become a famous example of blatant disregard for the sensibilities of women (and many men). More subtle elements she merely recounts without labeling them.

She tells of her early decisions with a light touch and a self-deprecating sense of humor. She says she fell into her business career when she found herself in Italy without a work permit, the wife of an American graduate student. To earn money she began teaching English to Italian businessmen and their families. The Italian businessmen would ask her to explain the American business world, and she started reading to be able to answer their questions. One thing led to another. Having learned a little about business, she decided to get an MBA and applied to the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, the only accredited business school in the Washington DC area, where her husband was now continuing his graduate studies. MBA in hand, she went to work in the sales department at AT&T—an area she chose because her first job had been as a receptionist at a commercial real estate firm, where she had seen the brokers sell things.

Throughout the book Fiorina is open about her insecurities, from her childhood fear that her parents would die, to her reluctance to leave the security of undergraduate life at Stanford, to her near paralysis when a sales training course at AT&T required her to role play. She mastered her fear of role playing through determination and hard work, traits that seem to be leitmotifs of her career. She is living proof that women and minorities have to be twice as good to be good enough.  

Whenever Fiorina faced a challenge, she responded with serious study of the problem and working hard to find a solution. At the beginning of her career the challenges were numerous, as she decided over and over to enter situations she knew little about. In retrospect, these decisions paved the way for her rise in the corporate world. For example, after she’d worked for several years in sales, her boss suggested she move on. She decided to go into Access Capacity Management—a new department created in the wake of the AT&T breakup to develop new long distance networks. Her boss asked, “Carly, why would you want to go there?” The department was chaotic, and she would be working with engineers for the first time. Fiorina writes that she wanted to be on the technological cutting edge of the business, where everyone was trying to figure out what to and how to do it. Unfortunately, she soon found out that the without an engineering background, she could not help the engineers, no matter how good her management skills.

She recounts thinking long and hard about how she could add value to the department. As she’d been studying the work of her new department, she had discovered several billing mistakes, and she decided she could help by verifying the billing, an unglamorous, tedious task. Eventually, though, she and her colleagues discovered their company had been overcharged by millions of dollars. In time her decisions became more strategic; she seems to have excelled at anticipating technological developments and expanding her company’s market share.


Fiorina accepted the job of CEO at HP in 1999, at the height of the high-tech bubble. At the time, HP consisted of 87 different organizations marketing 150 different product lines, all acting semi-autonomously, with their own profit and loss statements, human resource departments, and sales forces, often in competition for the same customers:

Every business manager was focused on his own product lines. Each manager was accountable for sustaining her current business. No one knew how to fund a future that might fall outside his or her defined business boundaries. No one was rewarded for spending money on an uncertain possibility that might not improve present performance, even if it seemed important to the larger company. No one knew how to pool together the considerable resources of HP… If a product improvement required more investment than a particular business could afford in a year, it didn’t get done, even if the consequences over the long term were dire.


The once powerful leader in technology was in a downward spiral. It had missed industry analysts’ profit estimates eight times in a row and was on its way to miss them for the ninth.

Fiorina quickly understood that the company needed to integrate its product lines under the HP brand and to push for a renewed focus on technological innovation. She writes that as a result of this strategy of “horizontal integration,” HP generated 11 patents per day in both 2003 and 2004, the highest rate in the company’s history. By 2005 it was the third most innovative company in the world.

But horizontal integration also led led to layoffs of thousands of workers. One of the great company myths, she says, was that no one ever got fired. People criticized her by citing The HP Way, by the company’s founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. (You get the impression that she was battling something approaching the devotion to the Little Red Book and the sayings of Chairman Mao.) Accused of ruining the HP ethos, Fiorina became known as “Chainsaw Carly.” She notes, though, that “some, who remembered the facts rather than the legends, knew that Dave [Packard] was famous for saying, ‘If you can’t do the job, I’ll find someone who can.’”

Eventually, she realized that the best way to defend her decision to restructure the loose-knit organization was by quoting the founders for her own ends. She writes,

Dave Packard said in The HP Way, “To remain static is to lose ground.” By 1999, all of Hewlett Packard’s habits and practices were geared toward maintaining stasis. So often the instinct was to stand still until every contingency had been prepared for, until every question had been answered, until every possible risk had been defined.


She goes on to poke fun at the direction HP took after its founders retired:

Some in Silicon Valley said that the best way to manage a technology company in fast-moving times was described by “Ready. Fire. Aim. Aim, aim, aim.” By this they meant that fast action and rapid-fire decision making was critical; and once a decision was made you expended energy to make the decision right. The joke was that the HP management philosophy had become “Ready. Aim, aim, aim, aim.”


The opposition to Fiorina both inside and outside of HP gained momentum during the proxy battle over the company’s merger with Compaq, which some HP board members had suggested as a way to strengthen HP’s competitiveness in the personal computer market. The board debated the strategic advantages and disadvantages of the merger during several meetings. Although attendance was mandatory, Walter Hewlett, Bill Hewlett’s son and a board member, was not present for all of them, and began a proxy fight. When the proxy votes favored the merger, he sued Fiorina. Her delight is apparent when she tells the readers that she felt “enormous gratitude and relief when the judge in the case not only ruled resoundingly in our favor, but also went out of his way to comment on the ‘credibility of management’” (although some in Silicon Valley still believe there were irregularities in the proxy vote).


Fiorina’s reputation in the media and in some circles at HP may never have recovered from the bruises left by the proxy vote and court battle. In 2005, the board dismissed her, but asked to announce her departure as voluntary. She told them she was more comfortable telling the truth about being fired. This episode is not where the book ends, though. Rather, it concludes on a note of calm, as Fiorina describes an ordinary day in which she has time for her family. It also ends on a note of clarity, as she looks back at what she might have done to improve her board’s governance.

Fiorina leaves it to the reader to decide whether the Hewlett-Packard board would have summarily dismissed a male CEO the way they dismissed her. The book is neither about being a hero nor a victim. She acknowledges mistakes such as moving too fast in restructuring the company and not changing the composition of the board. She is candid about her disagreements with some of the HP board members who may have wanted to see her go. The board never explained its decision. She wasn’t consulted on the transition to the new CEO, nor did the company hold celebrations to commemorate her service. Her two predecessors, who had served as CEOs after founding fathers Packard and Hewlett left the company’s leadership, had been asked to leave for lackluster performance. But they were feted and consulted on their way out.

Because all but a handful of Fortune 500 CEOs have been men, it is possible to discern patterns in what happens to them after they leave the executive suite. Douglas Branson, in No Seat at the Table, a book that laments the scarcity of women on corporate boards of directors, describes the careers of male ex-CEOs who bounce off “glass floors” to land other CEO jobs. To date, there are too few female ex-CEOs to know whether they, too, will bounce off to other CEO positions. However, it has been two years since Fiorina was fired, and she has not been named CEO of another company yet. The existence of a “glass floor,” as well as a “glass ceiling,” continues to highlight the persistently gendered nature of corporate careers.

The board that found Fiorina wanting was itself wanting in several ways.  Fiorina’s book was published a few weeks before a scandal surfaced over the HP board’s attempt to obtain the private telephone records of members under false pretenses to discover the source of leaks of confidential information to the media. The board chair, Patricia Dunn, consulted with HP lawyers and the new CEO, Mark Hurd, before authorizing the inquiry. Ultimately, she took the fall for violating her board members’ privacy. The irony is that while Dunn was forced to resign as the board chair, HP’s current CEO, Mark Hurd, just received a bonus from his board for his outstanding leadership. What becomes clear in all of this is that while we have not heard the end of the HP story, Fiorina’s version of events remains credible. Perhaps in time, the story will turn out to be one of “men behaving badly.”

   Sumru Erkut is associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is the co-author of Inside Women's Power: Learning from Leaders and Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance. 
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