Lessons Learned From HP’s Hurd, Fiorina – and Taylor’s Sudden MS Departure

Last week Hewlett-Packard, which is expected to pass IBM as the largest high-tech company in the world this year, put its new CEO on stage, and much of the behind-the-scenes discussion was on why Mark Hurd has been successful while predecessor Carly Fiorina crashed and burned.

Meanwhile, over at Microsoft there was one rising star who stood out above the others, a brilliant employee who had led Microsoft’s defense against open source and Linux. Martin Taylor could have eventually become Microsoft’s CEO at some future point, but while most thought he was bulletproof, it turned out he wasn’t.

With a lot of people graduating this month and starting out on the next phase of their lives, it might be a good time to take a look at these people’s careers because there are some excellent lessons that can be learned from them. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it is far less painful to learn from the experiences of others than to learn from my own.

Hurd vs. Fiorina: The Magic of a Good Manager

Some people are naturals — naturally athletic, smarter than their peers, incredibly articulate — and they clearly stand ahead of the pack. Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates and Carly Fiorina all fall into this category. However, while some are very successful at what they’re trying to do, some — as was the case, ultimately, with Fiorina — are not.

Hurd, who took over after Fiorina was fired, might actually be a superstar but, and this is key: He doesn’t act like one. Superstars often feel they have to be above everyone else; they seem to spend a great deal of their interpersonal efforts on letting everyone know how great they are. They have a nasty tendency of forgetting that they can’t do it all alone and that the people they mistreat can have a great deal to do with whether they are successful — or whether they’ll even be able to keep their jobs.

The smart superstars learn really quickly that if they don’t take all of the credit, if they make sure the folks that support them are themselves supported, and they understand their own weaknesses and either overcome them or find ways to mitigate them, they can be vastly more successful long term.

This is why Hurd, who doesn’t appear to have a number of the natural advantages that Fiorina had, has been more successful. He is well rounded, lets others sing his praises, and sings the praises of those that make him successful — that is, he doesn’t act like a superstar.

Fiorina has legendary potential but operates well below it because she doesn’t seem to have developed good people skills. I’ve spoken with a lot of folks who recently joined HP, and the word is that top executives from all over the world want to work for Hurd. As a result, he has built a team that will back him in moving HP forward. Fiorina, on the other hand, was largely betrayed by those she led.

Direction vs. Speed

Another lesson to be learned from the two executives is the focus on direction over speed. Fiorina felt a massive amount of pressure to do things differently and so she made lots of changes. Hurd has been much more measured, with his effort focused more on getting the right people in the right jobs upfront and in determining the direction the company should be going.

Rather than forcing his folks to start more projects than they can complete successfully, he forces them to pick and choose the projects they can do well and that have the strongest financial benefits.

In many ways, running a company — or managing your own career — is like a race. Much like a race, running fast before you have determined the proper direction, or running too many races at once — regardless of how fast you are — will almost certainly result in failure. That’s because if you are running in the wrong direction, speed actually works against you.

I often observe people working 12-hour days, six- and seven-day weeks, and the harder they work, the more behind they get. It seems most of their time is spent redoing or undoing things, which puts them even further behind.

Apple, Cisco, Oracle and now HP show the benefits of taking the time to choose the right direction and then moving quickly once the direction has been chosen. Remember, you will likely hit more targets if you spend the time to aim before you fire than you will if you simply pull the trigger as fast as you can.

Job Choices

I’ve been lucky over the years to have worked for some great managers — but I’ve also worked for some who should never have become managers. Looking back, I’ve never felt that time working for great managers was wasted time; however, while I’ve often learned a lot in doing important work for bad managers, I generally feel the time spent was largely wasted.

In the end, from my own experience and from watching others, those who work for great people seem to have more rewarding careers, with richer, happier lives. While I have no proof of this, I believe it’s due largely to lower stress, which means they might live longer than they otherwise would, as well.

In managing your own career, look for managers whom people speak well of and follow to different jobs and companies. Steer clear of managers who are their own biggest fans, badmouth their employees, or whom employees speak poorly of — or not at all. In interviews, bad managers tend to talk more than listen, like to belittle or “stress test” you, and speak poorly of others. Good managers will ask pertinent questions, listen to your responses, and focus on how you will fit with their teams.

Learning From Microsoft’s Martin Taylor

We don’t know yet what caused Microsoft and Martin Taylor to go their separate ways. Taylor was about as visible as you can get in the firm. He not only was a personal friend of several top executives there, but also led one of the most visible and successful efforts in the company. He should have been bulletproof. Lots of folks were shocked to hear that he is leaving, and I’ll bet Taylor himself is shocked too.

It may be weeks, if ever, before we find out what happened between Taylor and Microsoft but it serves as a reminder that no one is infallible. Over the last few years, we’ve watched CEOs of large multinationals get fired for things ranging from non-performance, to inappropriate behavior in the office. Twice I’ve seen executives who should have known better make “funny” sexual remarks and find themselves instantly unemployed.

As we mature, it is natural for us to want to test authority and push our limits. For some screwy reason, executives often seem to forget what they learned and make mistakes you would typically expect from rookies. It isn’t unusual for young people to defy the orders of parents and other authority figures, to look for creative ways to get through classes, and to explore an ever more broad choice of mood-altering drugs and liquids. Or, what could be more exciting than an office affair? Well, finding yourself suddenly out of a job is clearly more exciting — but it’s the wrong kind of excitement.

Companies have zero-tolerance rules for much of this kind of behavior. Executives and boards have learned that the way to avoid future problems is to make examples of those that break these zero-tolerance rules. Those rules may not necessarily be published anywhere, but when you break them, no one cares whether you were aware of the rule or not.

Being publicly critical of executives, misusing company resources, and engaging in substance abuse can lead to your departure even if you don’t do some of this on the job. Sex and the office don’t mix well, and I’ve seen a lot of marriages and careers destroyed because folks let their hormones do the talking.

Assuming you don’t want to suddenly be unemployed, here are a few simple rules to follow:

  • Know what zero-tolerance policies your company has, officially and unofficially, and don’t push them.
  • Don’t use company equipment for anything you want to keep private. Things that may have worked at school and home will probably not work in the office. Managers tend to be far less tolerant than teachers or parents.
  • Take care of those who take care of you. Those who get a second chance after a major mistake — and don’t bet on one — generally owe that second chance to a mentor, employee, manager or co-worker who came to their defense.
  • No one is bulletproof, regardless of level or title. Ask yourself regularly if a certain risk is worth your job, reputation, family and career. Avoid things that you wouldn’t want your boss, wife or parents to know about.

For those starting their careers, particularly for those starting in technology, welcome! For those already here, carpe diem. Just remember: Time is the only resource you can’t replace.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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