Monday, February 14, 2005

Permitting the Small Birds to Sing

"Too little time lunching in the staff cafeteria" is one pundit's take on a key reason for Carly Fiorina's demise. He may be onto something. Since her ouster by the HP board on February 9, the prevailing opinions by the media, academics and management gurus alike have ranged from "poor strategy execution" to not delegating (having a COO) to failure to change the moribund or resistant culture of the founders, David and Bill. Likely right on all counts. But, it is the details that matter here. Carly failed to win the hearts and minds of the little people--that is, her employees below the senior executives. If she had hung out in the cafeteria, she might have even changed her strategy.

Perhaps Carly believed she had to be the keeper of the strategy, as the the board expected her to be bold and create enormous shareholder value in record time. Thus, her theatrical communications were reflective of that belief. She had to look confident even if it was ill-conceived (the merger with Compaq).

What the little people want is to be acknowledged (for the culture they hold dear) and to have hope for the future IF they make a shift in their way of doing business. They also like to be consulted and have the opportunity to contribute their wisdom. Carly tampered with the soul of the organization--it's a dangerous approach for a leader when attempting change.

Better that the "eagle permit the small birds to sing, and care not wherefore they sang", so aptly described by Winston Churchill when negotiating peace at the end of WW II. The late Arthur Miller characterized the dilemma as our "tragic right". We fear being displaced, being torn away from our image of what and who we are in the world. The "tragic right", according to Miller "is a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and and realize itself". It is possible that Carly failed to imbue employees with their potential to make a difference. Her messaging instead was that they needed to change.

In the end, Carly had few followers--surely the litmus test of a leader. No doubt her intentions were noble. But her method did not "permit the small birds to sing".

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